Histories of voice are often written as accounts of greatness: great statesmen, notable rebels, grands discours, and famous exceptional speakers and singers populate our shelves. This focus on the great and exceptional has not only led to disproportionate attention to a small subset of historical actors (powerful, white, western men and the occasional token woman), but also obscures the broad range of vocal practices that have informed, co-created and given meaning to human lives and interactions in the past. For most historical actors, life did not consist of grand public speeches, but of private conversations, intimate whispers, hot gossip or interminable quarrels. It also did not exclusively take place in the chambers of political power, or splashed across the columns of national newspapers. Most voices in history, as Arlette Farge notes in Essay pour une histoire des voix, left their traces only unwillingly, or not at all. The longstanding project of “recovering” the voices of the silenced or marginalized has tended to privilege voice as a metaphor for (stolen) human agency, at the expense of a thorough understanding of the practical materialities of ordinary uses of the voice.
In order to meaningfully include voices and vocal practices in our understanding of history, we suggest an extended practice of eavesdropping instead. Rather than listening out for exceptional voices, this volume calls for contributions that listen in on the more mundane aspects of vocality, including speech and song, but also less formalized shouts, hisses, noises and silences. Moving away from a narrative that centers the public voice, and its use as a political tool and metaphor, we aim to edge towards a history of voice as a history of encounter. Insisting on the intersubjective nature of voice, and its often uncanny ability to ‘travel’ across different personal, social and cultural divides, we aim toward an expansive history of everyday vocality, accounting for the multiplicity and materiality of historical voices. Along with Ana María Ochoa Gautier, we call for an “acoustically tuned exploration” of the archives, on the understanding that ordinary voices in history are not neatly proffered up by single documents, but are often fleeting and muted, and dispersed across textual sites with different stated purposes.
The volume therefore also aims toward geographical and chronological breadth, from any region of the globe, from roughly the seventeenth to the twentieth century. Contributors to this volume seek out spaces and moments that have been documented idiosyncratically or with difficulty, and where the voice and its sounds can be of particular salience. Although the voice, as Jonathan Rée has pointed out, can never be stored and preserved as it is, it does leave traces – and stubbornly following those can lead us away from the conventional grain of the archives and their (institutionalized) logic. Including methods and documents that defy the disciplinary constraints of the modern archives and its historiography will also, we hope, help to make space for an exploration of the mundane encounters that took place throughout history across boundaries that historiography has both uncovered and amplified. Listening in on talks, shouts, and whispers between mistress and servant, adult and child, human and more-than-human, between speakers of different languages and inhabitants of different worlds – or hearing some voices failing to be heard by others – the volume centers concrete practices of speech and sound.
Rather than exploring what exceptional or symbolic voices have accomplished in the public sphere or for the historical record, our attention is geared towards vocal materiality: the sounding qualities of concrete human voices, as they were projected by concrete, tangible bodies in both public and private spaces: the home, the street, the schoolroom, the market, the prison, the chapel, the workplace. That also implies an interest in the visible and material characteristic of those bodies, and their changing cultural meaning over time: voices were produced not only in particular places and for particular ‘period ears’, but also at the intersection of culturally fluid corporeal practices of gender, age, ability, race and class. A focus on ‘who’ speaks has, in work historicizing ‘great speeches’ in the context of biography often served to obscure those characteristics, insisting on universalistic notions of authority instead. This volume, too, argues for a heightened attention to who speaks, and whose voices resound in history, but refuses to take the modern equation between speech and presence/representation for granted.
Proposals for chapters are welcome by early career scholars and established researchers alike. We invite abstracts of approximately 500 words, with final submissions of approximately 6000 words. Please send abstracts by April 15 to the editors. De Gruyter has expressed interest in publishing this collection in both paper and e-book formats.
Proposal Deadline: 15 April 2021
Deadline for completed chapters: 15 October 2021