Thursday, June 25, 2009

Voicelessness as Symptom

Montiglio turns briefly from the study of Greek tragedy to the study of medical texts:

[T]he Hippocratics insistently note the appearance of aphôniê as a most significant symptom. The meanings of this term range from speech difficulties, to a partial or total inhibition of the vocal organs, to aphasia, to the inability to speak on account of a physical lesion. Such an extended semantic field fits within the Greek pattern of calling "silence" not only a total absence of words or sounds, but also their partial presence. Just as the dative sigêi and the adverb siga (in silence) can apply to a bad speaker, that is, to someone who does use his language even though inadequately, the term aphôniê equates all kinds and degrees of speech disturbances with a "nonvoice." In the view of the Hippocratic doctor, patients who fail to communicate as he hopes are simply "voiceless."

The symptom of aphôniê is all the more disquieting for the doctor because he urgently needs his patients' words in order to understand the nature of their illnesses. Ancient Medicine stresses the importance of entertaining a dialogue with one's patient on a theoretical level. A concrete application of this principle, the Prognosis relies on the possibility of a regular communication with the sick, which alone enables the doctor to describe the symptoms of the disease in the most accurate way possible and to formulate a prognosis along with its evolution.

The troublesome character of aphôniê may explain why its emergence is repeatedly marked as "sudden" (exaiphnês). For it is unlikely that the onset of aphôniê was always so sudden in reality, considering the wide range of meanings of this term. As Danielle Gourevitch remarks, here "the observation is somehow replacing its object." To the doctor's eyes, a loss of speech and voice is apparently so fatal a symptom that it seems to manifest itself unexpectedly, abruptly, with no progression or warning: "When she was given a fragrant application of ground meal and myrrh, suddenly she lost her voice and died," writes the author of Epidemics 4 (30). Not surprisingly, this sudden loss of the voice is followed by an equally sudden death.

(Silence, pp. 228-229, my bold)

The disappearance of the voice more than the disappearance of language disquiets. Are all animal species endowed with a voice? To what extent might the voice be "given" through experience, developed rather than merely genetically endowed? Some species we know are able to learn vocalizations—but do they learn the voice itself? Biologist Stephanie Watwood, who studies how social interactions affect vocal development in animals, notes that the signature whistle of the male bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) assimilates to the signature whistles of other males whom they ally with as they fully mature. For females the signature whistle does not change over the lifespan. (See the video labeled "Whistles of Bottlenose Dolphins" here.) Does the juvenile male dolphin lose its voice as it enters adulthood? Is the autocognominal call an indication that dolphins are recognizable to each other by their voices, or does it signal some need for an additional unique identifier because the dolphin's voice alone isn't in fact unique? Does voicelessness represent the loss of the cognomen, the loss of any and all identity? Did the ancient Greeks conceive of disappearances of the voice that didn't symptomize dying, or is it perhaps the nature of conceptualization to remain loosely bound by a constellation of established usages and pregiven meanings, or to move within the ambit of affiliations, to assimilate? No, I rather imagine—assimilation means this much as much as it means an implicitly thoughtless con-formity— humans conceptualize more freely than that, at least as freely as dolphins and a few other types of animals create vocalizations in response to their acoustic milieu.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 7:53 AM.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

FtY: "The disappearance of the voice more than the disappearance of language disquiets."

Kvond: While it is not Greek so much (though it feels very Greek), the Ovidian and then Medieval story of tongue-less Philomena comes to mind. And the textile weaving of the narrative of crime. It is interesting how species of octopus communication involves not only shapes and pattern, but also textures, topographies.

June 25, 2009 9:00 AM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

The example of octopuses is interesting.

June 27, 2009 2:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

[sorry, have been away]...

There is something about octopus intelligence that invites an almost perfect projection of the missing elements that are not swept up by lingistic descriptions. The radial non-anthropocentric nature of their bodies, the fluidity of their movements and contortion, the highly tactic nature of their engagments, their reclusivity, and yes, the incredible topographic aspects of their communications, a communications that works to express just as much as to conceal (camouflage), to connect to their surroundings...all work to give us to see some missing vector of what we too do when we speak, gesture and move.

July 01, 2009 6:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Kevin - Mrs FtY here. Our internet access is disrupted due to the move. He can read stuff on my Blackberry but can't respond, so here I am from the outside world. He says: Thanks for the thoughtful post. The only book I've read on this topic wasn't quite as inspiring as you comments, and it was many years ago. Perhaps you've read something recently that you could recommend?

July 01, 2009 10:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Mrs FtY. I'm not sure exactly of the topic you have in mind, but I haven't read anything on octopus communication recently, and to some degree I am conflating the textured expressions of Octopus (some of their problem-solving intelligence), and the remarkable communication powers of the Cuttlefish. If unfamiliar with the cuttlefish here is a vid, but I'm sure that there is much on youtube...

Also I am having loosely in association some things said in Germinal Life By Keith Ansell-Pearson, on the fecundity of expression in life-forms, not explainable by adaptation alone, but that is a sidenote.

July 01, 2009 5:59 PM  

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