Excerpt: Lexicon of the Mouth

The following is an excerpt from Lexicon of the Mouth by Brandon LaBelle, out June 19. The newest title in our sound studies list, Lexicon expands understandings of voice and the poetics of gibberish, showing how speech is fundamentally shaped by the complex dynamics of the mouth. Lexicon of the Mouth is available for pre-order on, and at your favorite independent retailer.

The break, cut, scratch, dub, and delay all support a notion of the pause, the disfluent, and the stutter as cultural and linguistic platforms, narratives of what I’d like to refer to as “the weak.” It is my view that interrupted speech supplies our oral imaginary with poetical matter; matter equally generative of an assemblage of bodily expressions founded on weakness. I’d like to suggest that interrupted speech may provide a vehicle for an agency of the weak-mouthed, the weak-footed, or the weak-minded, where “lackluster” vocability may in effect spirit another type of logic or epistemology.

To give greater focus onto this notion of the weak, I’d like to turn to the work of Gianni Vattimo, and in particular, his idea of “weak thought.” Vattimo’s philosophical project of weak thought, developed notably in the 1980s, specifically aims to challenge metaphysics, as the truth of Being, in support of an “anti-foundationalism.” For Vattimo, metaphysics performs a primary suppression by limiting “the free play of dialogue and interpretation” and by “silencing those voices that are not appropriately related to the foundation” of Being. In contrast, Vattimo understands Being not as a foundational narrative, but rather as “an event” located within a historical framework, and one passed down, as a type of echo, from being to being. As he states: “Being never really is but sends itself, is on the way, it transmits itself.”  In this regard, the foundational narrative of metaphysics is overturned by a “positive nihilism” where the “occurrence of being is a background event.” Weak thought stakes out a position by which to unsettle “powerful thought” and the “violence” of metaphysics; weak thought is a project that ultimately opens a space for “the silenced” and in support of public life. “Instead, Being is dissolved in the history of interpretation, in which there are no facts, only more or less cogent interpretations.”

Read in an expanded way, weak thought is extremely suggestive for a model of subjectivity prone to digression, susceptible to dislocation and distraction, a horizontal perception aimed at interconnectivity, dialogue and even, slowness. In this regard, I find in weak thought support for the weakly spoken, and for weak bodies; lazy tongues, incredibly slow sentences, and prolonged repetitions manifest also in the slow learner. In short, weak thought as the basis for delayed presence.

“I think, however, and speaking in general, that the manner in which humanity can experience and live its human dimension in this postmodern world is by developing the positive potential of a ‘declining’ experience of values, one that is more diffuse and less intense.” Following Vattimo, we might learn from this “declining” and diffusion a form of weak speech tuned to the delicate and interrupted movements of the spoken, that is, language as it lives inside the mouth, and in particular, from the mouth that squirms in the midst of the stutter, with all the materiality of its animate force placed there on the lips, against the teeth, and on the sky of the mouth.

These weak poetics may spirit an interrogation of linguistic ordering, of the powerful and the proper, staged in the very gap or cut of disfluent hesitations. A gap in which power performs to shame the stutterer, according to a narrative of “foundational speech,” but also where we might rescue the primary energies of the spoken, exemplified by way of a certain noise.

The weak, as I’ve been following here, is central to relocating “the right to speak” from the narrative of “proper voice” and toward the “creolization” suggested by Glissant; a move that may also include, in its supplemental vocabulary, a radical sensuality, where the lisp, the stutter, and the caress may perform as practices of unexpected agency, to support new modes of wording as well as being together. Here, the weak-mouthed may in fact
provide the order of language with a raw poetics, explicitly allowing us to dialogue through an orality full of trembling and shivering dynamics.

These questions of the proper and improper, major and minor, underscore the difficulties the voice often negotiates. In this regard, I would underscore the voice precisely as a search for individuation. The voice is never fully given; rather, it demands investment and investigation, work and care. It supports our need for intimacy and sharing, as well as functioning within the greater territories of the political: to enable, empower, to challenge, as well as to refuse. The voice is rather unstable; instead, it continually brushes against so many relations and offices, histories and languages; it probes for openings and strives to reinforce existing exchanges, friendships, or traditions. It is endlessly shaped by movements in and through the mouth, and the overall structure of the senses. The voice is pressed out of us—to support us by literally taking away our breath. In this way, speaking also fundamentally weakens us, which might be one of its essential lessons.

Brandon LaBelle is an artist and writer working with sound culture, voice, and situated identity. His previous books, Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art (2006) and Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life (2010) are also published by Bloomsbury. He is the editor of Errant Bodies Press and Professor at the Bergen Academy of Art and Design, Norway.

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