The Vocoder produces an un-modulated form of speech that sounds robotic, partly because of the monotony assumed for the machine, but also because of the use of similar devices in sound art and popular music particularly of the 1970s and 80s like Laurie Anderson, Kraftwerk and Afro-futurists who used the Vocoder to evoke the ‘alien’ character of the world science fiction and cyberpunk. It is odd that Hawking retains a voice that dates from this period of technology; he could certainly upgrade to something more modulated and human sounding – or even in an English accent for that matter. The voice that Hawking once produced with his vocal muscles, his larynx, throat, tongue, lips and jaw has been entirely over-written by a mechanical American accent, suggesting both the eclipse of British by American science, and human by machine intelligence. It is the Voice of Science in a particularly technologized form that, in conjunction with his cybernetic body, articulates an image of a mythical hybrid creature in which the organism is clearly delineated as locus of pathological disorder, utterly dependent upon its inorganic support.
If Hawking’s voice seems to mark the passage from ‘Man to machine’, it echoes the voice that announced the equally mythical passage from ‘God to Man’. In Seminar X on Anxiety, Lacan introduces the idea of the voice as a primary drive object in relation to the voice of God, or rather the ‘The Voice of Yahweh’. Lacan discusses the example of the ‘shofar’, a horn that is blown three times at the end of the festive ritual that follows the Jewish New Year and the Day of Great Atonement.2 The role of the horn, Lacan suggests, is to bring the anxiety concerning the desire of the Other to a point of resolution. In contrast to Theodor Reik, however, who interpreted the ‘deeply moving, stirring’ sound of the horn as the ‘voice of Yahweh’ Lacan argues that, on the contrary, it is the voice of mourning. Through the moaning sound of the shofar, the people produce a feeling of ‘guilt or atonement’ for the sacrifice of the totem animal or ‘primal father’, following the logic of Freud’s Totem and Taboo. The function of the shofar is to renew the pact of the Covenant with God, or rather his Law, to remind and return the Law of God to its desire with the sound of the jouissance of castration. 3 Before the law, a pure affect outside of signification, ‘the voice … resonates in a void that is the void of the Other as such, properly speaking ex-nihilo. The voice responds to what is said, but cannot answer for it. In other words, for it to respond, we must incorporate the voice as otherness of what it said’. As remnant of symbolic castration, this voice is our own voice detached from the signifier that represents us and for that reason ‘appears to us with a foreign sound’.4
Hawking’s foreign sounding machine voice culturally retains its sense of otherness even as it enunciates the latest findings of astrophysics and evaporating black holes. As such it nicely supports the fantasies associated with those powerful computers, gadgets and robots that operate with apparent ‘intelligence’ but whose fantastic speed and efficiency is simply an effect of senseless digital information flickering away in automated circuits untroubled by the redundancies of representation or the problems of interpretation. But perhaps what resonates more in the Vocoder is precisely the voice that is ‘sacrificed’ or over-written, rendered silent by the machine: the lost voice interior to the Hawking cyborg – and indeed by extension the whole empire of technology – that haunts its machinic desire.
The missing and machine voices of Stephen Hawking, along with his suffering and mechanical bodies, remind us of both aspects of the redundancy and integral disharmony of the speaking body outside sense. Indeed, Hawking’s speech produces a third body that is neither the broken biological body that rendered his voice silent, nor the mechanical body that now enables its artificial enunciation. This is a more mysterious body made of mortifying yet undead flesh that functions as a surface of inscription and the symbolic exchange of suffering and enjoyment. Indeed, Hawking still enjoys, it seems, in a quite conventional way. According to a number of reports over the years, Hawking’s voice has directed his team of nurses and assistants to convey him to the red light zones of the West Coast of America and Soho, London. Incredibly, Hawking now in his 70s is reported to be a frequenter of Freedom Acres sex club in Devore, California,5 and Peter Stringfellow’s Cabaret of Angels indulging his passion for lap dancers.6 Stringfellow is reported recalling the remarkable intensity of Hawking’s fascination with the women: ‘the professor didn’t stop smiling from the moment he came in to the time he left five hours later. He had lots of dances from the girls and liked one in particular called Tiger whom he described as “wonderful”’. 7 Whatever one might think of such places – and certainly they could not be described as progressive – it nevertheless seems to be the case that in the unsound of his undead desire, Hawking continues to nurse the value that has always been sought in symbols of femininity. Tiger, tiger, burning bright / In the fleshpots of the night / What immortal hand or eye / Dare frame thy fearful symmetry? In the performance of a young woman, reflected in the enjoying substance of Hawking’s cadaverous body, is located a mysterious value of ‘wonder’ beyond attainment or satisfaction, an incalculable value that has perhaps kept him alive.
1 Rory Cellan-Jones, BBC.co.uk 02:12:14.
2 Jacques Lacan, Anxiety: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book X, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. A.R. Price, London: Polity Press, 2014: 245.
3 Ibid., p. 251.
4 Ibid., p. 275.
5 Business Insider from Radaronline 24.02.12 from radaronline.com/
6 Nigel Farndale, ‘I Get Quite Heated Over Lapdancing’ Daily Telegraph, 13.07.03. http://www.telegraph.co.uk
* The author here has replaced the original word –« forests »- from the poem by William Blake.