U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Disembodied Voices in Intellectual History

In his recent post on Embodiment in Intellectual History, Ben raised the question of how intellectual historians might more effectively or fruitfully consider the “embodied aspects of the people about whom we write.” He suggested that a consideration of “intellectuals’ physical presences may grow more important as disembodied communication technologies become more and more ubiquitous.” 
I began to wonder:  when was the last time that our communication technologies weren’t in some way disembodied.  We probably have to go back to prehistory for that.  But I forbid my students from beginning their essays at the dawn of time, or writing an introductory paragraph about the course of human history, so I will spare you a similar sweeping gesture.  Besides, we do (mostly) U.S. history around here — our wayback machine doesn’t go very far back (though it might be salutary for us if it did). 

So as I thought about Ben’s post, and I thought about how intellectual historians might “do embodiment” well, I was reminded of one of my favorite sections of A Godly Hero, Michael Kazin’s brilliant biography of William Jennings Bryan.*

Kazin’s extended meditation on the sonority of Bryan’s voice provides an excellent example of how intellectual historians can explore what someone’s physical presence meant for the articulation and reception of his or her ideas.  In the Great Commoner’s case, this particular aspect of Bryan’s (self-consciously performative) self-performance seems to have imbued his ideas with a liveliness and appeal that they lacked when presented in mere text, as printed words upon a page.

Kazin writes about the almost magical power of Bryan’s speaking voice.

How did he do it? One born too late to hear Bryan on the stump or in a convention hall can only gather up reminiscences and marvel that, in an era satiated with oratory, he could lead so many people, foes as well as allies, to describe him as the most compelling speaker they’d ever heard (48).

Listeners commented on the extraordinary timbre of Bryan’s voice:

Nearly every recollection begins by describing the quality of that voice. “Sonorous and melodious,” “deep and powerfully musical,” “soothing but penetrating,” “free, bold, picturesque,” “clear as a cathedral bell…” (48)

As Kazin points out, such praise sounds very much like the aesthetic judgment audiences might have pronounced upon a stage actor’s talents.

Like them, the Nebraskan could project his voice a remarkable distance. Mary Bryan recalled one day in 1898 when, from inside a hotel room in Corpus Christi, she could hear her husband perfectly “three long blocks” away.  At national conventions, before the introduction of amplified sound in the early 1920s, Bryan’s was often the only voice that could reach every seat in the house. And his diction — clear, precise, and rendered with a slight prairie twang that passed for no accent at all — ensured that listeners could understand every word (48).

I am intrigued by the gendered aspects of Bryan’s appeal.  Apparently, he sounded like a man was supposed to sound.  And I can’t help but wonder: what were women supposed to sound like when they spoke in public?  “They weren’t,” would be the easy laugh line here.  But there were women on the Chautauqua circuit, and I suspect that someone like Carrie Nation could hold a crowd’s attention.  But I don’t know that her appeal was aesthetic — or acoustical — in the way that Bryan’s seemed to be.  Instead, part of the draw there (in addition to audience interest in the content of her speech) might have been the sheer spectacle of going to see a woman — and such a woman! — speak in public.

In terms of going to hear women, I suppose that famous female vocalists and melodramatic actresses could have drawn great crowds wherever they performed. But except for stage performers and professional entertainers, I wonder if there were many women who would have been able to draw a crowd simply to hear the sound of their speaking voices, as crowds wanted to do in Bryan’s case.

In the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, what were the aesthetic expectations for public female — and/or feminine — speech?  (I mean besides “Ladies, please don’t!”)  What acoustical features, what kind of sonority, might have marked a pleasing, public female voice?  If you have some bibliographic suggestions, please add them to the comments below.  This is something I’ll need to look at in relation to my work in the early 20th century, and I should probably base my understanding of the matter on something more authoritative than Singin’ in the Rain.  (“I caiiiiiint staiiiind him.”)

In any case, Bryan’s heyday may have been the age of oratory, but it was not yet the age of radio. Kazin writes:

A…GOP partisan named Ira Smith first heard Bryan in 1896. Half a century later, he recalled: “I listened to his speech as if every word and every gesture were a revelation. It is not my nature to be awed by a famous name, but I felt that Bryan was the first politician I had ever heard speak the truth and nothing but the truth.” The next day, Smith read the same speech in a newspaper and “disagreed with almost all of it.” He was glad, in retrospect, that “the most remarkable orator of the century” had passed his prime before the onset of radio. Otherwise, Smith, who ran the White House mailroom for five decades, believed the Nebraskan would certainly have been elected president (49).

To me, this is perhaps the most striking insight of all — one of those “for want of a nail” arguments that sets history swinging on the hinge of a single slim contingency.

Heck, maybe old Ira Smith was right.

Or was he making the kind of appeal to technology’s magic — or to charisma’s power? — that often serves as a sop to our most simplistic explanatory urges?  For example, we’ve probably all heard some version of “Kennedy beat Nixon because of television.”  That’s a little too easy.  And I think it would be really bad history to say, “If Bryan had been broadcast coast to coast on the radio, he surely would have won the White House.”  But Kazin, who doesn’t tend to write bad history, doesn’t say that.

Furthermore, as Kazin points out, it was not merely his voice alone that made Bryan so appealing; it was his deep sincerity. “Listeners enjoyed being in his presence and often felt inspired by a guileless orator who seemed an authentic representative of the producing classes. A politics of character thus blended into a politics of celebrity as Bryan’s voice became known throughout the land” (49). That part about “being in his presence” suggests a whole performative rhetoric of look and gesture, physicality, sturdy manliness, that went along with that big sonorous voice.  So radio might not have helped Bryan much anyhow.

In their introduction to an audio clip of Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech, recorded in a studio twenty-five years after it was first delivered, the editors at GMU’s History Matters site note that the recording “does not capture the power and drama of the original address.”  Perhaps only listeners who had heard Bryan speaking live and also heard that recording could judge whether or not the recording “gets” Bryan.  Listening to his disembodied voice today, we have the challenge of wading through almost one hundred years of technologically mediated cultural history — or culturally mediated technological history — that have worked to shape what we think a (man’s) voice ought to sound like.

But if audio recordings didn’t seem to do justice to Bryan’s oratorical gifts, that may have had less to do with the disembodiment of Bryan’s voice than with the disembodiment of Bryan’s audience.  Maybe it wasn’t enough for Bryan to stretch himself out upon a Cross of Gold in a recording studio; maybe he needed a stadium full of people to bring power to his performance.

Along with Ben, I too would be interested to hear (!) our readers’ thoughts on the more general question of how attention to embodiment can work in intellectual history.  I would suggest that exploring the (dis)connection between voice and presence, ideas and embodiment, matters not only in history, but for history — for how we study it, for how we write it, and for how we perform it (and ourselves) here in the silent cacophony of the intellectual history blogosphere.

What say you?

*If my discussion of this book seems vaguely familiar to you, it might be because I swiped a few paragraphs for this post from my old blog.  But I had, like, Seven Faithful Readers.  So I’m guessing it’s new to you.

16 Thoughts on this Post

S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.

  1. “For example, we’ve probably all heard some version of ‘Kennedy beat Nixon because of television.'”

    I thought that what we all hear now was some version of “Kennedy beat Nixon because Daley stuffed the ballot box in Illinois.” : )

    (David Greenberg, by the way, claims that this was unlikely.)

    • Ahem, ahem. Speaking as a native Chicagoan (born and bred there the first forty years of my life), and as one who hails from Cook County, no less, and, moreover, being south side Irish and one who grew up walking distance from the Daley stronghold of the Bridgeport area, I think I am considerably qualified herein to speak to this dispute.

      Cook County encompasses the city proper; the Greenberg article concludes with an affirmation of rampant fraud alleged in Cook County, which is essentially the entire city of Chicago. The 677 indicted individuals had been freed by a Daley crone–no surprise there, considering connections are EVERYTHING in Chicago. (For hiring purposes, the original Mayor Richard Daley had been known for saying, “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.”)

      Earlier this year, Chicago had been named the most corrupt city in the U.S. (which means it outstrips Washington, D.C. in that title)–no surprise there, either. I mean, what can one expect from the major metropolitan area in a state which has had SEVEN governors indicted and jailed within the past seventy years? (White slavery rings, illicit truck licenses, attempts to auction off political appointments–oh, there is no end to our creative crime streak!)

      I have had to contend with election officials every single time I have voted for the past TEN years, because the rolls consistently have incorrect personal information for registration on me, even though all of my own paperwork and photo IDs are current. (Yes, I still vote in Chicago, as I did for the last presidential election; I am in Texas working on a PhD in humanities.) In short, Chicago is as incompetent as it is corrupt, which makes for a very convenient recipe to commit election fraud–oh, the stories I could tell you. (I have lived under both Daley regimes, that of Richard J., pere, and Richard M., fils.)

      All that being said, whereas there might never be a way to prove if the election had been stolen from Nixon or not, given how greatly Chicago is populated by radical Social Democrats, my visceral response (fancy talk for gut feeling) is that the fraud in my hometown had been both real and extensive. Had it been enough to tip the election in Kennedy’s favor? Very probably. Hizzoner, after all, had boasted that Chicagoans vote early AND often.

      ‘Nuff said, I do believe.

      “The policeman isn’t there to create disorder; the policeman is there to preserve disorder.” (Richard J. Daley)


  2. Ha! That too.

    Interestingly, I just ran across this anecdote in an excellent post over at The Historical Society, Winston Churchill and the New Digital “Iron Curtain”: Churchill wouldn’t allow the “iron curtain” speech to be televised. “I deprecate complicating the matter with technical experiments.”

    And speaking of technical experiments…if readers saw a documented update to this post — an update that was up for about one minute and then disappeared! — that’s because I was putting back a sentence I had inadvertently cut on copy/paste. (I noted the fact of the update at the top of the post.) However, I hadn’t noticed Mike’s comment when I made the editorial change, so I undid the change.

    My general thinking is that a) not only do I need to document any updates beyond the correction of typos or the omission of a word but b) once a post gets commented on, I’m obligated to leave things just as they stand in order to preserve the integrity of the comment thread. Not fair to the commenters to add something that wasn’t there before, or take something away that was, once they’ve had their say.

    So I have written what I have written.

  3. I’m still trying to suss out what the deal is about embodiment. If I’m reading it correctly, the argument is that it is non-trivial that some category of persons (“intellectuals”) have physical bodies which extend into four-dimensional spacetime; as opposed to being Putnam-esque brains-in-a-vat. Further, these persons use various aspects of their bodies to “perform” their roles as intellectuals.

    If we grant that, what exactly are we saying? Does embodiment in this fashion affect the kinds of ideas these intellectuals have, does it affect how they think? I don’t think that’s what you’re going for. Rather, I read this to mean that embodiment in some sense determines how someone “is” an intellectual, i.e., how they disseminate their ideas by participating in various fora they could not if they had no body. That strikes me as leading to a conundrum, if not a paradox: that the intellectual’s possession of a body is what facilitates his participation in the non-physical, imaginary space we call the public sphere.

    Is that it? That may sound facetious, but it’s not meant to be. There are clearly times when that sort of thing matters: e.g., the salons and public societies of the Enlightenment. People’s actual physical participation in those venues is what makes them go. But I’m still not sure we’re not verging on a truism here. And I’m still not sure if “embodiment” makes for a different kind of intellectual than “non-embodiment” does. Everyone’s in the public sphere, it seems, whether they abide in it with their bodies or their minds. Maybe it would be more fruitful to talk about different kinds of intellectual “space,” but then I hate when space gets used this way, so it won’t be me doing it.

    I’m not dismissing the idea of embodiment out of hand. The physical existence of objects is a growth industry these days. It’s a big deal for material culture, of course, as well as for book historians, many of whom these days focus more on the page itself than what’s written on it. But I’m still not sure that the fact that humans who make it are material tells us anything especially significant about intellectual history.

    Rousseau’s social unease and eventual paranoia has always been attributed to his lifelong urinary problems, which always made him uncomfortable being in public. One could argue that this aspect of his embodiment had a considerable impact on intellectual history. But I hope that’s not where you’re going, because I sure ain’t.

  4. “So I have written what I have written.”

    That sounds almost oracular. Or maybe you’re embodying Yul Brynner when he says “So let it be written, so let it be done” in The Ten Commandments.

  5. It’s not oracular, but it is Biblical: Pontius Pilate’s response to complaints about the text on the placard nailed atop the cross. So here’s my version of the Dos Equis ads: “I don’t often quote Pontius Pilate, but when I do, I quote him out of context.”

    So, while I’m doing that, let me take this opportunity to once again encourage U.S. intellectual historians to familiarize themselves with a crucial primary source.

  6. Varad, what I’m exploring in this post is (primarily) this, from above the jump: “…how intellectual historians can explore what someone’s physical presence meant for the articulation and reception of his or her ideas.”

    So I’m looking not at how being an embodied self affects how/what a particular thinker thinks, but at how the (dis)embodied delivery of his/her ideas affects their viability/shelf life. This seems to me to be similar to the problem that Ben was exploring, and I merely offer Kazin’s biography as a good example of how this kind of inquiry has worked well in practice.

    Also, I’m interested in the ways that “voice” is and isn’t an aspect of “embodiment.” Voice was part of the totality of Bryan’s physical life. The audio clip of Bryan’s speech is a “disembodied” voice — isolated from that larger totality — and yet it brings to our ears in an uncanny way an intimation of his onetime existence as a physically living, moving, speaking, person.

    As I mentioned above, I’m interested in what the “audience expectations” would have been for “a woman’s voice” in Bryan’s day. Was it a similar standard of aesthetic judgment, but simply applied to a different range/register? Clarity, sonority, musicality, but two octaves higher? Or was the conception of beauty for a woman’s speaking voice different altogether?

    And then there’s the idea of “voice” on the page (or in the blogosphere) — a figurative way of describing the (silently) speaking self that comes through in writing. There I’m *slightly* interested in what “audience expectations” are for “a woman’s voice” on the page/in the blogosphere.

    As I think of “voice” — Bryan’s, Carrie Nation’s, Ben’s, Kazin’s, yours, mine — I think it’s worth noting that we’re not really talking about a static thing. Bryan’s voice was the sound of his speaking — waves of motion. Not a single tonality (though there was probably a dominant tone) but a moving, rolling range of shifting sounds.

    It’s the same thing for writing — maybe (hopefully?) what comes through is not so much a single dominant tone, but rather a sense of “vocal range.” So I wonder how (or if) gender expectations (whatever they are) for audible voices translate into the expectations we bring to the disembodied, silent but no less salient “voices” we encounter in ideas expressed in written form. Absent visible clues and gestures, (how) does gender register? And why might that matter?

  7. “I don’t often quote Pontius Pilate, but when I do, I quote him out of context.”

    L.D. Very funny line!!!
    I’m not sure I’m into the flow of the subject matter but how would Stephen Hawking fit into this observation; disability, wheelchair and a disemodied voice if ever there was one. I think it may actually focus the attention of the audience, although it won’t get your heart racing.

  8. Paul, that’s an excellent intervention in so many ways. Is Hawking’s synthesized voice “disembodied,” or does it allow him to “embody” his thoughts in sound? Something in between?

    And I think it’s the “in between” stuff that is most interesting, and that these kinds of inquiries can help to foreground. So I am playing with terms like “register” and “range,” which suggest a continuum, and playing those off against man/woman, male/female binaries. Spoken voices, written voices, synthetic voices, recorded voices — they all have some (overlapping?) relation to embodiment and personhood.

    With Bryan — with anybody, really — one thing that intrigues me is the association of the acoustical with the characterological. Having a “good” voice seemed to go with being a “good” person. The virtue of “pleasing” sound — whatever the aesthetic requirements might be — privileges (or calls attention to the privileging of) certain kids of bodies over others, as your invocation of Hawking suggests.

    If aesthetic expectations privilege certain kinds of voices over others, it’s quite possible that a really good idea — or a really good mind — might not get a fair or friendly hearing because it is delivered in/through a really unpleasant voice. Vocal performance is part of how most of us present ourselves in the world — everything from class discussions to work meetings to casual conversations to job interviews. In speech we present not just our words/ideas, but in some sense our selves, to one another.

    Is there a moment, a conceptual and conversational apogee, when a spoken word might possibly, briefly slip the bonds of its embodiment and hang there in the air as an idea that can be accepted or rejected independently of how it was physically shaped and delivered? I don’t know.

    The sonority and timbre of others’ voices is, pardon the pun, something I am just generally tuned in to. I pay attention to it — in fact I can’t *not* pay attention to it. I’m like some little penguin hatchling — what is most deeply imprinted on my memory about someone is often not how they look, but how they sound. But, following Ben’s post, I am thinking that there’s a lot more to it than that. It’s like the start of the movie “Contact” — there are signals beneath the signals. So when you isolate one signal — audible voice — or strip it away from the expression of ideas — how does that change the message?

  9. And we’re not even talking about inflections/accents. All *kinds* of privileging/hierarchy going on there.

    This is where the “disembodiment” of writing can offer a way around some of these pitfalls — but can perhaps lead us into others.

  10. Is there a moment, a conceptual and conversational apogee, when a spoken word might possibly, briefly slip the bonds of its embodiment and hang there in the air as an idea that can be accepted or rejected independently of how it was physically shaped and delivered? I don’t know.

    Are you suggesting the sounds themselves supercede the words in delivering meaning? I hadn’t thought of it that way but we know that certain tones in music elicit very specific responses.

    I wonder if common sounds have the same impact as they cross time and generations…would Churchill be as impressive today as he was in the 1940’s? We are influenced by his already titanic reputation, how do we filter that? Would a hip hop generation still appreciate a speech by FDR with that aristocratic accent? Congressmen Barbara Jordan had very stylized and dare I say stentorian voice, imposing… I can’t imagine that not carrying over time.

  11. “Are you suggesting the sounds themselves supercede the words in delivering meaning? I hadn’t thought of it that way but we know that certain tones in music elicit very specific responses.”

    In my own experience, certain tonalities/frequencies/vocal acoustics are just plain awful to listen to. That doesn’t mean I won’t listen — but I have to consciously try to focus on the content of the message, and not how it’s being delivered. I suspect my fingernails-on-a-chalkboard response is *not* a universally shared judgment — voices that bother me may not bother others, and voices that don’t bother others may bother me. And I could easily believe that my voice is on somebody’s list of “voices that bug the hell out of me.”

    I don’t think we can safely appeal to a transhistorical acoustic/aesthetic experience. There are certain oratorical styles that no longer resonate in our culture — Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech is a great example. But other styles of speech still do. And, as you pointed out, the historic, important speeches we have already heard shape our judgment of the speeches we are hearing. Martin Luther King Jr. pretty much sets the standard for the prophetic mode of address. And I think the laurels (currently) go to Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy for “sounding presidential” — though FDR is also in the mix still.

    What passed for thrilling oratory in Bryan’s day is probably still practiced — I heard an old preacher once whose cadence, whose vocal falls and rises, seemed lifted straight out of the William Jennings Bryan Correspondence Course For Erudite Speechifying. But it’s not a style that’s particularly popular.

    This is the fun — and tricky — part of cultural history for me: historicizing things we generally tend to universalize.

  12. Philosophically and psychologically speaking, that is, from the perspective of “rational persuasion,” the “(dis)connection between voice and presence, ideas and embodiment,” can find warrant and elaboration in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, for the character of the speaker is what is said to be revealed in speech and this, in turn, “is a significant factor in determining the success of rhetorical performances….” The rational structure of the argument derives its power not from the force of reason simpliciter, but by way of “illuminating the character and practical reasonableness of the speaker.” The three factors of rhetoric, namely, the character of the speaker (ethos), the affective states into which “auditors” might be moved (pathos) and the logical, rational, or evidentiary sources (logos), are indispensable in examining why and how we are persusaded within situations that meet the “conditions of credibility, receptivity, and proof.” In other words, the speaker must exhibit a certain character in her discourse, she must put her audience in a certain frame of mind, and she must fashion the discourse in such a way that it will be taken to be “demonstrative.” On this account, reason is wholly embodied and, importantly, socially situated. Moreover, as Vincent Descombes has pointed out, this analysis of the workings of rhetoric by Aristotle is “the only real philosophical theory of mental causation [e.g., where reasons act as causes] to have been put forward.”

    I’ll pass along source material to anyone interested in further exploration of this tradition of classical rhetoric as revived by several contemporary philosophers.

  13. One need only think of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. for a more recent and research-promising
    illustration of your case.

Comments are closed.