Home > Uncategorized > The Voice: an exploration of sound and the life of Neda Soltan

The Voice: an exploration of sound and the life of Neda Soltan

Reading about sound, I couldn’t help but think of Neda Soltan. Do you remember her? On June 23rd of 2009, she was killed by a sniper in the streets of Tehran while protesting against unfair elections. During that long week of heavy news coverage, I heard somewhere that her name—Neda—more or less equals the word “voice” in Farsi.

This text will be a meditation on Neda’s name and the role of the human voice and human silencing in resisting and forging gender divisions. It will also be a personal exploration into a new methodology for writing. Inspired by Gregory Ulmer’s (2003) work toward developing a writing that prioritizes rhetorical invention as well as by Victor Vitanza’s earlier work on “aleatory procedures” (2000), I decided to explore Neda’s name through two online linguistic databases and write the results; that is, I attempted to foreground the inventive process by using search results as a way to map new understandings of Neda’s meaning, situating her voice in a larger symbolic construct.

Taking as central two notions: 1) that writing is a process of connecting textual fragments (Kristeva, 1966; Porter, 1986) and 2) that seeing unexpected linguistic connections bursting forth, mapped out in visual networks, will have implications toward knowledge production, I consulted an online etymology database and an online dictionary visualization to try to understand the significance of Neda’s name. These two tools provided me with long lists of connected words, historical correlates, as well as information about the words’ contexts and dates of use. I highlighted any word or phrase that stood out, anything of interest. Other people would likely have chosen other words to highlight, but I chose what I wanted. Then I searched each new word and followed the recurring associations. The process of seeking out the recurrent became like hunting for reflections—the same ideas were cropping up in different historical definitions. I came to believe that thinking through how the associations were expressed, how the words were arranged in relations, was useful toward extending Derrida’s deconstructive project (ala “Of Grammatology”) but also toward re-making it into something that considered not just traces or lines of signifiers but also fluid maps of signification systems as they existed in the database and in my head at any moment. So given the potential fluidity of the database and the connections being assembled in my mind, I made it my goal not to move forward with each search in order to try to find some way out of this labyrinth, but to move forward for the purpose of looking backwards to see what pictures could be drawn, knowing that the picture could change with each new search. What did Neda’s voice inscribe for me?

The words, once mapped, proclaimed that the loud voice of a woman—represented by and through Neda—had to be silenced in the King’s palace. But further, the palace of silencing connected directly to the King’s fear of castration, the loss of his royal lineage, the disruption of power relations. What I saw, then, was how the instantiation of the quiet(ed) female slave was, ironically, for the King an act of self-castration. I will now try to explain these connections and explore them in-depth.

The words swine and hunting dog appeared in the database and reflected only on the male who turned himself toward the activity of silencing a woman. The swine was defined as the forbidden animal, and the hunting dog barked and chased down the prey that cowered in the woods in silence. The first connection became evident as the Afghan dog appeared in association to the place where shawls and coverings were made for women—these were meant to hide the woman’s face, a barrier between her and her mouth. She, thus, transformed into the silent animal, and the man transformed more and more into the hunting dog. The shawl connected, in turn, to the strangling muff or blanket and invoked the image of the wide, strong hand that covered a mouth to silence it. This strong hand was the hand of the King, which through the smallest gesture, silenced the many mouths within his court.

The notion of castration came from tracing out the word “Sultan.” Following Sultan to the notion of a royal court, I encountered the word “eune” or the “eunoukhos,” meaning the “castrated man” who guards the King’s bedchamber. It soon became evident that the forbidden thing for the King must be the loss of sexual production and the subsequent loss of his royal, biological lineage; accordingly, the word “harem,” through the folk etymology influence of the word “seraglio,” was imagining the King’s court or royal holding place as a cage that holds forbidden things. The word “things” here indicated the women who “serve” the King—but the forbidden things could also have included the King himself who acted like the forbidden animal (the swine) or the “sukhara,” the maker of the Su sound, imitating the grunting noises of a pig while engaged in sexual acts.

The man in power is, thus, situated as silencing what is forbidden. On the one hand, the eunich is “silenced” in order to protect the King’s lineage, and on the other hand, the woman is silenced or muffed to protect the ever-present possibility of the King’s own social castration, in the event that she might desire to share knowledge of his failed sexual performances. The King’s bedchamber, therefore, ties these two ideas together, assigning the woman the power of announcing the weakness of his manhood, and his Kingdom by association. The woman must, therefore, be caged or protected (depending on one’s point of view) from her own voice, since she protects his lineage and his sexual identity. In some sense, though, the King is the woman’s prisoner, being situated and potentially subverted by the sounds of her voice. He chooses to release himself from this vocal imprisonment by proclaiming with his own loud voice that it is her fault if he proves sterile or incapable of engaging in intercourse, and she will be the one held accountable. Any incursion against the King’s biological or social identity will be silenced, caged, hidden in the bedchamber where all forbidden things must be imprisoned.

The voice of the King takes the form here, in accordance with Neda’s death in Iran, of a gun-shot by the male-dominated political elite, the religious clergy. A bullet, a loud gun shot, a sudden noise was returned to her as she cried out publicly for freedom for women and for the end of masculine-centered religious oppression. Neda became the voice that was wrapped up in a shawl and strangled by the King. No longer willing to silence herself before the men in power, her voice posed a threat to the male lineage and, perhaps, to the sexual domination of men in Iran.

That her silencing took place on a Sunday was all the more disturbing, since this day has been, of course, considered God’s Biblical day of rest. To examine this connection, I explored the online databases. Sunday appeared immediately tied to the notion of an octave in music—the eighth note. So there was a tension produced between seven days, the seven Biblical days of creation, and the eighth day, which would be the first day that creation moved with God. The eighth day was considered to be the beginning of all existence, the day God once again could act in the world as a participator. The eighth day was the day after God’s day of rest, but we wonder whether God ever once again interacted with the world through his voice. Did he, on the seventh day, lose his voice from speaking too much or, perhaps, too loudly? The world questions whether God recovered his voice on the eighth day.

Now, it must be remembered that the eighth note on a musical scale is the first note once again. C. D. E. F. G. A. B. C. C is the eighth note, which is a return or the note that has been turned back to an origin. It is a note that completes a cycle. So Neda’s death, tied to the octave, although a turn against, must, it seems, be a turn back. The participation of God on this day remains a mystery. Was he resting on this Sunday or was he participating? If participating, was he the one turning Neda back by striking the eighth note with his voice, starting the order all over again?

The connections are already there within the words—what Derrida might call a’l’oeuvre, where sets of relations wait alive for us. In the thoughtless text, thoughtfulness will soon become unavoidable. In fact, the words revealed a strong thread of fate or destiny and suggested a feeling among the people, of Iran and elsewhere, that God was indeed the ultimate turner, the one who decided the political will of the people of Iran, the one who ultimately maintained the masculine and religious order. Consequently, Neda was, it seems, doomed to be silenced. And God, it seems, was bound to be dragged into the issue, whether he was resting or not resting, whether he was speaking or not speaking, whether he was there or never there. Accordingly, Neda’s loud roar, like the way in which “voice” is etymologically associated to the sound of a thunder bolt, rumbled and echoed through the streets on the day that God could not speak. Accordingly, Neda set off a revolution that was returned to her with a violent thunder strike or a flash of lightening from the hunter’s gun. In the end, what remained was nothing but what remained before her voice ever punctuated the air. In striking the eighth note, there was a return to the beginning, to God, to a hierarchical order.

Neda’s positioning by these symbolic connections incited for me a recounting of Douglas Kahn’s discussion of Fredrick Nietzsche’s ramblings in “The Gay Science.” Therein, Nietzsche sees a boat drifting quietly out at sea and imagines all women to be like that serene, dreamy boat— “quiet magical beings gliding past” (68). In some sense, Nietzsche wishes women were like this, and that is no surprise since he soon admits to engaging in grunting noises, revealing his inner swine. As expected, then, Nietzsche suddenly rejects the silent conception of women, remembering that “even on the most beautiful sailboat there is a lot of noise, and unfortunately much small and petty noise” (68). In that move, Nietzsche devalues all women and separates himself, as a man, from women, using a contrast between his grunting sounds as a man and what he hears as the small noises of women to establish gender distinctions.

At this point, I cannot help but think of Susan Glaspell’s play “Trifles” where women were metaphorically represented by a caged bird, living in a cage, subjugated to the kitchen and not allowed to speak or sing like a songbird (the bird was strangled in the play) in the presence of their rulers, their husbands, the men. Thus, the women bonded together and solved the details of the murder by paying attention to the subtle, small details, while the manly attempts to solve the murder floundered because of the male lack of attention to “trifles.” Since the men did not have the perspective of their wives nor the mind to think their wives’ advice valuable toward solving any problems, they failed. The hushed discussions of the women, which to the men were petty, silly, and of no consequence, were actually of great significance. Silencing the women limited the men to the rationality they forged among themselves, producing an isolated stupidity, what might be termed a rational castration.

Then as my mind ruminates on these many connections, I think of the 1960 film Psycho and the scream of the naked woman being attacked in the shower by the knife-wielding man. I think about all of the movies—The House of Seven Corpses, Frankenstein 1970, Psycho, Scream 3, and many others—where a woman takes a shower in silence and is watched by a killer, and then, as if proclaiming the moment of her sudden awareness of her naked objectification and as if announcing her fast-approaching silencing, she screams like a blaring siren right before her naked body is stabbed. The audience relishes in that blood-curdling movie scream. But why? Is it because the scream acts as a release from her objectification? Or is it that the audience knows she will soon be silenced again, so the scream produces pleasure? Or is it only that the scream is a compact moment of inarticulate and unexplainable vocal triumph cloaked in the sound of terror?

The atypical female-horror-film-scream scene reinforces the notion of female helplessness and plays both with and against the cultural stereotype of the man-knight who rides in on a white horse to save the damsel who shouts out in distress. On the one hand, the scene plays against the stereotype since the knight is transformed into a killer, and on the other hand, nothing changes since the woman still screams for help and still stands naked and unable to act. The woman screams before being destroyed in all of these scenes, but no one who cares about her is there to hear here. Perhaps, what becomes apparent, as a result, is the function of the movie scream. From the killer’s point of view, the scream effectively announces her as helpless. But it also announces her as human, and her nakedness, no longer viewed from a distance through a transparent shower curtain, is now put on display in relation to her face and her horrified scream. Is it any surprise that she is at that very moment silenced by the man who has been publicly called out as indulging in her dehumanization? At the same time, the scream perpetuates the role of the woman who is not heard and whose sound, when voiced above the register of whispers and when considered beyond the range of petty noise and when recognizing the oppression and violence of men, must be silenced. The female horror movie scream is, in other words, the last, frustrated breath of sound, a denouement of a struggle against gendered otherness, which, like all sounds, echoes and then soon dissipates so that the molecules in the air once again float undisturbed.

Kahn explores, quite beautifully, how it is sound that can both remove people from an object status incurred through the viewing of the eye, the visual sense, and can also re-establish “otherness” through hearing the voice that bounces between two people, confirming difference, creating an awareness of space and, thus, separation. As Kahn says, “Through the figure of dialogue, an intimated voice can constitute an acoustic spatiality in which sounds, and by extension their actions and affiliated objects, are imbued with the returning voice of the other” (28). Turning the function of sound around in the other direction, Kahn also explains how sound, or more accurately “noise,” can help constitute mimesis. “Like the mimetic faculty, love always finds a greater communication, an entranced beholding of the beloved in what would otherwise be perceived of as noise” (28). It is, as Kahn puts it, the study and full embrace of noise that can heighten communication and further establish mimesis, an act that is not at all foreign to true love. So it may be concluded then that love never silences but indulges pleasurably in the sound of the other.

My journey alongside of linguistic associations has revealed an awareness of a war waged between sound and silence. It exposed historical symbolic structures, in the stories of the past and the way words relate to each other to uphold their own meaning, as having a strong gender division tied to sound and oppressive constructed orders dependent on silence. Where is love? Perhaps, the discovery of an imagined enemy, the putting of words to the sides of this hearing war, negates the silence all together, reveals what must be reconciled, and releases the potential for love.

Derrida, J. (1974). Of Grammatology. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
Drucker, J. (2009). Speclab: digital aesthetics and projects in speculative computing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kahn, D. (2001). Noise Water Meat. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Kristeva, J. (1984, [1966 dissertation project]) Revolution in Poetic Language. translated by Margaret Waller. New York: Columbia University Press.
Porter, J. (1986). “Intertextuality and the Discourse Community” Rhetoric Review, 5(1).
Ulmer, G. L. (2003). Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy. New York: Longman.
Vitanza, V.J. (2000). “From Heuristic to Aleatory Procedures; or, Towards ‘Writing the Accident’”. In Maureen Daly Goggin (ed). Inventing a Discipline: Rhetoric Scholarship in Honor of Richard E. Young. NCTE. Urbana, Illinois

-David Gruber

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