ventriloquism

Ventriloquism, also referred to as throwing the voice, is a special way of using one’s voice to create an effect such that the sound seems to come from somewhere else, a body part other than the speaker’s mouth or a different person or object. The word is a Latin re-creation of engastrimythos, the Greek word for speaking through one’s abdomen, by combining “Venter” (stomach) and “Loqui” (to speak). For a ventriloquist, the trick to winning the audience is to have his dummy play the leading role as if it had a mind of its own. The ventriloquist displays virtuosity often by pretending to argue with the dummy—which sounds witty and mischievous—while pretending to lose the argument. In so doing, the ventriloquist stages the illusion that his dummy is somewhat out of control.

“Ventriloquist’s Dummy,” the final sequence in the 1945 British anthology horror film Dead of Night, takes that loss of control further into what may be considered the ventriloquist’s biggest nightmare—having his own voice silenced by the dummy. The partnership between ventriloquist Maxwell Frere (played by Michael Redgrave) and his dummy Hugo goes wrong in many aspects because the dummy, as it turns out, literally has a mind of his own. Hugo not only overrides Maxwell in their show but also seeks to replace Maxwell with a new ventriloquist. Maxwell, though not unexpectedly, takes the blame for all the terrible things actually done by Hugo, including an attempted murder of Hugo’s partner-to-be. After stomping Hugo to pieces in jail, Maxwell is sent to an asylum and becomes silent. When Maxwell finally speaks again, he ventriloquizes; with his lips moving mechanically in dissonance with the spoken words. He speaks in the voice of the presumably “dead” Hugo in a vicious tone: “I have been waiting for you.” [Figure 1]

What the animated automaton Hugo exposes is a sense of alterity that is always at the heart of the production and perception of ventriloquism. A puppet is the extension not only of the puppeteer’s hand but also of his voice. The extension takes places as an alienation of the puppeteer, or rather, an amputation, as the puppet often speaks in a half mechanized, disagreeing voice that has some extralinguistic quirky sound (e.g. in its timbre). The Hugo example also shows that the ventriloquial voice is neither inside nor outside of the spectacle, as the image—for example, the dummy’s moving lips—fails to contain the essentially other voice. Hugo therefore stands as a perfect metaphor for the uncanny automaton, a dangerous promise made by the ventriloquist. As Marshal McLuhan insightfully observes, electric technologies such as printing not only extend the power of man but also trigger “a desperate and suicidal autoamputation, as if the central nervous system could no longer depend on the physical organs to be protective buffers against the slings and arrows of outrageous mechanism” (McLuhan 43). The danger of autoamputation, the flip side of automation, already lurks in ventriloquism performance, as we can see from Hugo. To activate that automation, the ventriloquist needs no more technology than his own hand and voice in the case of the puppet. Despite the extremity that Hugo represents, precarious uncanny animation of the puppet still lurks in more amiable situations, for example, when the famous American ventriloquist Edgar Bergen first introduced himself on television as the “best friend and severest critic of [his puppet] Charlie McCarthy.”[1]

Hugo’s automation reveals the boundary-defying nature of ventriloquism in, for example, blurring the lines between anthropomorphic objects and their human partners. Also, the phenomenon of ventriloquism is both visual and vocal, and both spatial and temporal. Therefore, it is not surprising that in the 1930s Edgar Bergen was turned down by the manager of the radio station WMAQ (later a vice-president of NBC) who told Bergen that ventriloquism would not work on radio (Graubart and Graubart 202).[2] The ventriloquist’s voice is neither anchored in the body of the ventriloquist nor in that of the dummy; the voice is enigmatically doubled and only partially visible. The ventriloquist’s dummy dramatically illustrates the voice in general as “an excess, a surplus of authority on the one hand and a surplus of exposure on the other,” as philosopher Mladen Dolar elaborates on the alterity of the everyday human voice:

There is a too-much of the voice in the exterior because of the direct transition into the interior, without defenses; and there is a too-much of the voice stemming from the inside—it brings out more, and other things, than one would intend. (Dolar 81)

Furthermore, ventriloquism stages mixed temporalities as it invites flashbacks of childhood, projection of fear and desire, or imagination of fantastical worlds. Kenneth Gross points out that the wooden automatons in the puppet theater troubles the perception of everyday human life:

If the wooden actor holds up a stark mirror to actors of flesh and blood, it also offers a resonant image of our broader relation to the words we speak, their forms of life and death, our relation to material objects, as well as to our own bodies. (Gross 4)

In fact, long before the dawn of electric technology, the practice of ventriloquism already predicted the uncanny power of the automaton. Also, from the very beginning of its history, ventriloquism has been living a double life as a technical term for throwing the voice and a metaphor for all kinds of ventriloquial relationships with a slippery boundary between these two usages. Cultural historian Steven Connor calls the term of ventriloquism an “anachronistic palimpsest” given that it is either “scandalously or mysteriously archaic” or “uncannily premonitory” (Connor 415). The Delphic oracles in classical Greece are commonly understood as the earliest example of ventriloquism, as the Pythia (the priestess) delivered the prophecy in a frenzied state as if speaking in the God’s voice.[3] Ventriloquial speech also appears in other examples of prophecy including the Witch of Endor in the Old Testament (Connor 75–77). In the Medieval period, victims (usually teenagers) of witchcraft were often reported to deliver demonic speech while being possessed (Connor 111–112). In these accounts of the ventriloquial nature of prophecy and demonic possession, the human body serves as the extension of invisible power beyond the human realm. As it often creates a public spectacle, these ventriloquial events are also the sites of power. In Delphic oracles or demonic possession, a force from elsewhere takes control over the human voice. In a puppet show, the ventriloquist’s human voice exerts control over an external object that secretly threatens to overthrow the ventriloquist’s authority.

Driven by the urge to demystify ventriloquism, many early modern scholars struggled to provide scientific explanations of ventriloquism. In practice, however, their efforts never completely succeeded, as fantasy about ventriloquism resurfaced time and again in scientific studies on the phenomenon. For example, Le Ventriloque, a 1772 compendious investigation by French mathematician and inventor Jean-Baptiste de La Chapelle, testifies La Chapelle’s failure to “see the effects of his own projection of, or absorption in, the fantasy of the projective powers of the ventriloquist” (Connor 217).

Ventriloquism started to be a distinctive stage art around the turn of the 19th century in Europe and in the first decade of the 19th century in the United States (Schmidt 156–157). The 19th century spiritualists in particular embraced and employed ventriloquism as a central technique in magic shows (Schmidt 159–164). Later in the 19th century, British music halls and American vaudeville became main venues of ventriloquism shows. The use of dummies also became entrenched as a common prop of the ventriloquist (Connor 249–264).

When writing the pre-history of phonograph, German philosopher Friedrich A. Kittler indicates that phonograph entered a stage that was already set by the telegraph as “an artificial mouth” and the telephone as “an artificial ear” (Kittler 28). These inventions also set a new technological stage for ventriloquism. With the development of information technologies including the telegraph, telephone, phonograph, sound film and television throughout the 19th and 20th century, ventriloquism performances (especially puppet shows) were increasingly found nested in various kinds of media. Yet the explosion of new forms of media also eventually reduced ventriloquism to a marginal role in the contemporary popular entertainment culture. Modern television viewers and moviegoers are still familiar with ventriloquism because of its frequent association with children’s channels and horror films.

If ventriloquism has long been used as a critical term for describing a variety of ventriloquial relationships symptomatic of broader patters in the history of media, how is ventriloquism deployed in contemporary media studies? How is it discussed and circulated, and in relation to what other key terms?

To begin with, ventriloquism is often treated as a self-explanatory and undertheorized term, which makes the task of tracking the subtle shifts in its usage quite difficult. Also, ventriloquism is such a versatile term that it covers almost every pertinent facet of orality in media studies. In studies of fiction, ventriloquism is sometimes used interchangeably with the Bakhtinian heteroglossia and polyphony to describe the power of writing in creating its own other. In film studies, ventriloquism is in competition with the more popular “acousmatic sound” as the preferred term for describing the image/sound gap. In this case, what can theorists gain from the notion of ventriloquism that escapes or underplays its sense as acousmatic sound while describing the image-sound problem? Film sound theorist Rick Altman offers ventriloquism as an alternative to the acousmatic sound to re-orient discussion on film sound to prioritize sound over image. Furthermore, while the acousmatic sound yields a teleological storytelling about de-acousmatization—visualizing the previously unseen acousmêtre (usually mysterious and all-knowing character who remains unseen) in order to expose his vulnerability (as being seen makes him human), ventriloquism is not as concerned about the chance of stitching the voice back to the moving lips on screen. However, as a visual-audial apparatus, ventriloquism highlights cinema’s ability to deceive the audience by concealing (or naturalizing) the fact that sound and image are essentially different phenomena in film: “Cinema’s ventriloquism is the product of an effort to overcome the sound-image gap, to mask the sound’s technological origin, and to permit the film’s production personnel to speak their sub-conscious mind—their belly—without fear of discovery” (Altman 79). The sound engineer is a ventriloquist who is at the service of cinema as an apparatus of ventriloquism.

Furthermore, the world of recorded music is the world of technologically enabled ventriloquism. “In no aspect of our lives has the penetration of the human by machines been more complete than in music,” musicologist Joseph Auner forcefully argues (Auner 99). Sound technologies literally enable the human singer to throw his voice into microphones, speakers, synthesizers, and computer programs. Those technologies, in the meantime, are where the voice is split, replicated and turned into ghostly shadows that populate the tracks, haunting what is left of the human singer. This blurs the boundary and undoes the hierarchy between the human ventriloquist and his mechanical dummies and therefore problematizes human subjectivity. As Auner points out, since the mechanized voice features loops and repetitions both in lyrics and in melodies, it keeps emptying out the human voice and creates an impression that “[as] the human element is rendered hollow, it is as if only the machines can still speak” (Auner 112). This delineates an unsettling post-human predicament when the dummy is on an equal footing with its human owner: cannot humans be the dummies of the android ventriloquists too? In this sense, ventriloquism both describes the technological precondition of the recorded singing voice and stages the fantasies and fears about it that have a history of thousand years.

Ventriloquism is therefore a key problem that describes our own predicament in media experiences. As an audial-visual medium itself, ventriloquism has been exerting power—while re-defining the power relationships tied to it—since the dawn of human history. As a metaphor for all kinds of ventriloquial relationship, ventriloquism lurks in basically every corner of everyday human life. Ventriloquism always carries an undismissable sense of otherness whenever it appears. When, in Dead of Night, someone casually asks Hugo the dummy, “You have a mind of your own, don’t you?” Hugo responds in a strange tone that sounds both serious and sarcastic: “Oh, you’re very very wrong!” Being outsmarted by the wooden actor is probably just the first step of discovering how deeply one is entangled in the world of ventriloquial automata—ventriloquism simply has no exterior.

– Yiren Zheng

dead-of-night1

Figure 1: Maxwell Frere (Michael Redgrave) and Hugo, Dead of Night

 

Endnotes

[1] In Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy’s first appearance on network television in 1950 despite Bergen’s long-term career as a “radio ventriloquist”.

[2] Although Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy later became popular on the radio, their radio show was not really ventriloquism and owed much to their already established success in stage performance.

[3] Note, however, in early documentations no one has mentioned engastrimythos as a practice of the Pythia of Delphi. The Delphic oracles are therefore already used in a metaphorical meaning of ventriloquism. The model for starting the cultural history of ventriloquism with the Delphic oracles actually comes from a 1772 compendious account, Le Ventriloque, ou l’engastrimythe, written by French mathematician and inventor Jean-Baptiste de La Chapelle (1710-1792). See Connor, Dumbstruck, 210-225.

Bibliography

Altman, Rick. “Moving Lips: Cinema as Ventriloquism.” Yale French Studies 60 (2011): 67–79.
Auner, Joseph. “‘Sing It for Me’: Posthuman Ventriloquism in Recent Popular Music.” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 128.1 (2003): 98–122.
Connor, Steven. Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Dolar, Mladen. A Voice and Nothing More. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006.
Graubart, Judah L., and Alice V. Graubart. Decade of Destiny. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1978.
Gross, Kenneth. Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.
Kittler, Friedrich A. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994.
Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.