"Soundings of Things Done": The Poetry and Poetics of Sound in the Romantic Ear and Era
Phonemanography: Romantic to Victorian
Garrett Stewart, University of Iowa
1 By contrast,
and to anticipate something closer to the turn of Agamben's
thought perhaps, the generalized apostrophe "Beware of the
dog"—as speech act rather than common noun in clausal
context—absents the animal's presence
(regardless of its visibility at the moment) but under
precisely the sign of its potential (as threat). The
imperative is to "be" in a state of expectation, in the
form of wariness.
Brandreth, where the phenomenon is placed under the sign of
the quizzical in the subheading "What Did You Say?"
(58-59). Brandreth's obscure and unexplained coinage
(alluding to an either/or ambiguity, perhaps, rather than
to the technical term "oronymy" for the onomastic class
"names of mountains"), a term which has nonetheless had
considerable circulation since, is defined as follows:
"Oronyms are sentences that can be read in two ways with
the same sound"—as in the rather self-exampling 'Are
you aware of the words you have just uttered' vs. '. . .
just stuttered.' Or more fully discrepant: 'The stuffy nose
can lead to problems / The stuff he knows can lead to
problems." All of his examples, however, turn in this way
on the junctural equivocation of two (or three) abutting
words, so that such phrasal alternatives (rather than
full-sentence variants) are predominantly dependent on what
I have called the wavering phonemic juncture of a
"transegmental drift." See Stewart passim.
for her spirited send-off to our panel when it was composed
of talks rather than articles (where, even then, I was
borrowing formulations off the cuff as fast as I could
remember them or jot them down), and for her brilliant
advice since in overseeing the expansion of my paper into
an actual essay, I compound my longstanding debt to the
private as well as printed wisdom of Susan Wolfson.
"Between Shakespeare and Joyce," writes William H. Gass in
an essay called "The Sentence Seeks its Form," "there is no
one but Dickens who has an equal command of the English
language" (275)—and he means by this to stress the
aural dimension of the novelist's effects. "Language is
born in the lungs and is shaped by the lips, palate, teeth,
and tongue out of spent breath. . . . It therefore must be
listened to while it is being written" (273).
Written—and then read, its origins thus recovered in
its destination. There is nothing undeconstructed in this.
As Dolar would agree, and before him Agamben, and of course
Kittler too, speech is not the work of spirit but strictly
enunciation, "spent breath" and its articulated blockages.
In Dickens, long before he reaches the podium with it, such
printed language waits to be audited, precisely by being
silently released from, typography's pent breath. Gass's
most striking evidence from Dickens is a sentence that
carries a slight additional interest for the present essay,
rather than for his, in the way it is sustained upon the
nonapostrophic and recursive lower-case moan of o.
David Copperfield's lament is given here with my further
typographical highlights on the kinds of anaphoric returns
and alphabetic reversals by which Gass is intrigued: "From
Monday morning until Saturday night, I had no
advice, no counsel, no encouragement,
no consolation, no assistance,
no support, of any kind, from any one. . . ." (275).
Gass's own stress falls not on the negative trailing off of
the non-echoic "one" (with its slant reprise of the opening
"Monday") but rather, before that syllabic
denouement, on the overt graphic flips from "no" to "on"
and the alphabetic and half phonic return of the latter
twice over, after the aggrieved "no counsel," in the
impacted nugatory parallel of "no
Quoted in Jameson, where the lines are treated for their
lyric reification of the sea voyage, but without attention
to the phonetic wavelets that serves to swamp the turmoil
of below-deck labor—or at least float euphonically
other examples in The Mill on the Floss in
Reading Voices (above n. 2), 212.
is a relationality of subordinate phrasing on which no one
writes more grippingly than Christopher Ricks. See "William
Wordsworth (2): 'A Sinking Inward into Ourselves from
Thought to Thought.'"
way this redirected expectation—from "being someone,"
or "being something or other" (as, say, "intuitive" or
"munificent") to simply the named fact of her existence as
a force for change—the way this might, in Eliot's
manner of putting it, "vibrate to" the being present of
potentiality itself in Agamben's writings (the existence of
nonexistence as a positive rather than a negative force)
anticipates the remaining direction of the essay.
also the separate treatment of the mediations in Kittler,
Gramophone, Film, Typewriter.
See Jean-Claude Milner, Introduction à une
science du langage.
The point is not an easy one—this relation of thought
to non-voice: "We can only think if language is not our
voice, only if we reach our own aphonia at its very bottom
(but in reality there is no bottom). What we call the world
is this abyss" (Agamben, Language and Death 108).
Cognition is distance. Among the several reiterations of
this central Heidegerrian inference, here in Agamben's own
italics: "Thinking death is simply thinking the
Voice. Turning radically back, in death, from its
having been thrown into Da, Dasein's negative
retrieves its own aphonia" (60). It is not just, after
Hegel, that things come to consciousness only by being the
negation of what they are not. Further, the consciousness
to which they come is the negation of exactly that voice
which is negated in their naming. For this philosophical
tradition derived from Hegel, the only way, in any sense,
to be "positive" about the world is through such double
negations. Agamben's self-appointed task, always by
definition provisional, is to forge another route.
The world emerges from the infinite regress of speech (or
thought) tracking down "its" voice to the impossible
"there" of its being. To think the condition of being that
is indexed, rather than ever truly uttered, by voice
requires a medium other than that voice. But if the
realized world is defined in this way as the sheer negation
of voice, as all that remains outside that voice, signified
by the very language that cancels its sound in the enounced
sense of other things, then the recognized distance of
thought from voice is an essential ethical as well as a
philosophical idea: route of the only proper descent from
self-enclosed logos into the groundless but no less
immanent reality of ethos, where one must share a
non-individuated space with others.
Certainly, in this closing high note of Agamben's, one can
hear overtones of a pervasive Deleuzian
intuition—most obvious or clear-cut, perhaps, in the
latter's engagement (so different from Kittler's Lacanian
application) with the "imaginary" of film: namely, that the
virtual, as part of the real, may be the opposite of the
actual, but not its negation. See Deleuze 7.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, "A Defence of Poetry," in Wolfson and
"Being Odd, Getting Even (Descartes, Emerson, Poe),"
Stanley Cavell sees (hears) Poe's prose as "a parody's of
philosophy's" (111) in just this respect, its iterative
paranoia and "impish" wordplay as the mad antithesis of any
overcome skepticism about the credited and signified world.
In Poe's story "The Imp of the Perverse," on which Cavell
focuses, the stray phoneme "imp" breaks into discourse as
invasive prefix as if it manifests the return of a
linguistic repressed that must be patrolled by a normative
everyday discourse. Recall in this disruptive sense the
rising visionary stress of a phrase like Shelley's from
Ode to the West Wind: his triple impish pun on fused
subjectivity released from the monosyllabic trigger of