by Dara Culhane and Jane Whittington


Dara:  Hi.  I’m Dara Culhane,  and I am going to talk about voice, and a memory work/life story project I’m involved in.  My subject is Margaret.  Born in Ireland in 1879, she died there in 1955.  Margaret was a nationalist, a feminist, a Catholic, an actress and an elocutionist, and the subject and object of a scandal that led to her living in what she called “exile” in Montreal from 1922-1939. 



Jane: And I’m Jane Whittington, an MA student in anthropology at SFU. I struggled through a course in voice feminization – I’m a female-identified trans person – and found myself puzzling over the way speaking constructs gender. What is it, I wondered, that genders voice, and how does voice interact with new forms of subjectivity? Voice feminization seemed to draw in and trouble so many aspects of experience, and to tangle my experience of gender in a web of meaning, shared practices, and political assumptions.   

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Dara:  I began my project on Margaret’s life story by diving into archival collections, poring over photographs, and reading letters and diaries and scripts Margaret wrote, and accounts and analyses that scholars published about Margaret and her family, their lives and times.  Margaret earned an independent living by performing, and teaching children elocution, and actors how to articulate, enunciate and project. And she taught republican and feminist activists how to “have a voice” in public political discourse.

I read Anthropologist, Amanda Weidman.  She writes that:

The model of the speaking subject as agent has always relied on using “voice” in a metaphorical sense  ….voice…something that is a sign of agency but has no power in itself…


Jane: Technique – unabashedly instrumental interventions to alter pitch and tonal dynamics – demanded new awareness of body cavities and their use. What had been an ocularcentric experience, that of being seen in a new way, and at its most invasive, a new experience of the tactile but controlled skin-boundary, became an affective,  performative “conversation” of the body. To borrow Gil’s terminology, I was profoundly aware of turning over a new leaf.

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Dara:  I became absorbed by the complexities, contradictions and paradoxes that interweave relationships among accent, class, elocution, nationalism, gender and sexuality lived within the never simple context of anti-colonial Irish politics, and life in Diaspora. I became intrigued by voice as embodied political practice…

And, I discovered Philosopher, Adriana Cavarero’s work.  She writes:

…voice…what it communicates first and foremost, beyond the specific content that the words communicate, is the acoustic, empirical, material relationality of singular voices. …

Jane: Dara led me to Adriana Cavarero, and the voice’s corporeality. Annette Schlichter agrees the voice is social, messy: “While the speaking, and particularly the singing voice might transcend socio-material boundaries, join and simultaneously separate bodily interiorities and exteriorities, the act of producing a song should not be fully detached from the messiness of the social and cultural regimes it is embedded in.”                                                         

Dara:  When I asked a few elderly people who had known her “What do you remember about MARGARET?” They said she had a voice you couldn’t forget.  Trying to help me understand, the people I interviewed mimicked Margaret’s body speaking, and their bodies hearing, the sounds of Margaret’s words: her audacious, caustic, irreverent, witty commentaries.  I became intrigued by voice …as experience, performance, embodied practice…And I read more of Cavarero

…voice…proceeds from inside to outside, pushing itself in the air, with concentric circles, toward another’s ear…

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…voice…comes out of a wet mouth and arises from the red of the flesh…

…voice…its destination is speech… that moves us from ontology to politics…

Jane:  And voice is gendered – Cavarero again: “Feminized from the start, the vocal aspect of speech and, furthermore, of song appear together as antagonistic elements in a rational, masculine sphere that centers itself, instead, on the semantic. To put it formulaically: woman sings, man thinks.” But in Cavarero’s retelling of the story, the king is overcome by what he hears. Striking fear in his heart, the singer’s performance upends power, privileging the somatic over the semantic.

The point isn’t that new semantic hierarchies are made or even proposed, but that the body, given voice, performs indeterminacy and crisis. It recasts us as what Turner calls “threshold people,” and by occupying and troubling space into liminality, tips us into the “social drama” that invites uncertainty, calls meaning into question, and offers possibility.

Schlichter observes that the gendered voice never finds firm footing in the semantic:  “Gender as a practice of playback runs the risk of failure. The sonic can work against a coherently gendered, intelligible body… Because of its potential to be disciplined by and to disrupt meaning, the voice can even become a site where gender is naturalized and denaturalized at the same time.”

Dara:  And so I come to be fascinated by voice—speaking and hearing, sounding and listening–—Voices telling stories of selves in relationships with others, reaching for and retreating from, resistant and resigned to making do and making new, social lives.

margaret full face 50s

Jane:  What interests me in this “messiness” is the sonic attributes that go into this performance. I don’t mean the microsociological covariate of pitch, intonation, gesture, and interaction that supposedly gender speaking. Rather, what are the audible exfoliations, as Gil would call them, of vocal sound, into space as the language-beneath-language of the body’s negotiation for position, for gender, and for flowering?

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Cavarero, Adriana 2005 For More Than One Voice : Towards a Philosophy of Vocal Expression. Palo Alto, CA, USA: Stanford University Press,

Gil, Jose 1998  Metamorphoses of the Body. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Schlichter, Annette 2011  Do Voices Matter? Vocality, Materiality, Gender Performativity. Body & Society 17(1):31-52.

Turner, Victor 1987  The Anthropology of Performance. New York: PAJ Publications.
1969  The Ritual Process. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Weidman, Amanda 2008 “Stage goddesses and studio divas in South India: On agency and the politics of voice.”  In McElhinny, Bonnie S. (Editor). Words, Worlds, and Material Girls : Language, Gender, Globalization. Berlin,DEU: Mouton   de Gruyter, 2008.Chapter 4 ; 131-147


Fragments of quotations are drawn from the following:

Cavarero, Adriana 2005 For More Than One Voice : Towards a Philosophy of Vocal Expression. Palo Alto, CA, USA: Stanford University Press.

Weidman, Amanda 2008 “Stage goddesses and studio divas in South India: On agency and the politics of voice.”  In McElhinny, Bonnie S. (ed). Words, Worlds, and Material Girls : Language, Gender, Globalization. Berlin, , DEU: Mouton de Gruyter, PP. 131-147.