Summary of Notes from the Second Session, “The Voice and the Gesture,” A Seminar Directed by Giorgio Agamben, Grado, Italy, August 21-23

This second session began with a review of the first…

We will approach the problem of the voice through the grammatical VOCATIVE. The vocative has a double function. It (1) appeals and (2) gives to the other, and has him/her bring, a name.

We can imagine a vocative that calls an absence — as long as it has a name. IE, Leopardi’s, “O hope, I hope.”

The vocative can be used to call oneself. IE, “Call me Ishmael.”

The vocative is NOT a case. It does not fall.


The field of language is divided in two: (1) Semiotic and (2) Semantic.

This seems to mark the possibility to speak, but it actually marks its impossibility: There is no way to pass from one to the other.

The vocative is a THIRD DIMENSION, neither nominal (semiotic) nor propositional (semantic). THROUGH this we’ll try to show the place of the voice. It does not serve to connect the two, but stays in between.

Language has the ability to refer to its own taking-place. Emile Benveniste calls this “enunciation.” He analyses “indications of enunciation,” IE, “I” and “you.” Roman Jackobson calls these “shifters,” and comments, They have an existential relation of contemporaniety to the speaker, but he does not explain this relation further.

Paul Valery: “The ‘I’ is the sense of the voice.”

The “I” is the MEANING of the voice itself — but not a semantic meaning: the voice IN ITSELF has meaning.

* * *

An 8-9th century author, (name missing from notes) of York, wrote a treatise, ON NOTHING AND DARKNESS. He also wrote a treatise on Anselm’s “ontological argument.” Anselm’s argument pretends to convince an idiot of God’s existence. He first defines God as that of which there’s nothing greater or more perfect. If the idiot hears and understands this, then he will be convinced, since, as men have no experience of such a being, the idea, of which its understanding proves, must come from the being itself. Therefore, God exists.

(Name missing from notes) of York defends the idiot. The idiot does not understand the MEANING of the proposition — a being greatest and most perfect — but he understands SOMETHING: a dimension of language with no semantic content: He understands that THERE IS A VOICE. He understands language’s having-place.

Another example…

Glossolalia: some communities practice it as a high level of prayer: voice with no language — only the presence of The Holy Spirit.

* * *

The problem of voice itself: the relation between voice (phone) and language (logos). This relation has been grasped in the FORM OF ARTICULATION.

Ancient treatises on grammar begin with a division between ANIMAL VOICE (“confused,” IE, whinny of a horse, bark of a dog, singing of birds) and a HUMAN VOICE (Phone Enarthos. In Latin, Vox Articulata). When they try to explain Vox Articulata, they say, Phone Engrammatos: a voice that HAS the letter (gramma); a voice that can be written.

The more subtle grammarians make four distinctions:

1) articulated and writable, IE, Human language.

2) inarticulated and NOT writable, IE, The noise of fire.

3) inarticulated and writable, IE, Certain animal voices we can transcribe.

4) articulated and NOT writable, IE, Certain noises people make, such as whistles or hums. These may be meaningful, but we cannot write them.

* * *

Common Western form of definition: divide then define by articulating the division, as when Aristotle defines life: separate out vegetative/nutritive function, then articulate this with other faculties, IE, those of a cuttlefish or a god or humans…

Aristotle: ON INTERPRETATION: 16a38: “What is IN the voice?” He answers: symbols of affections of the soul. What is written? He answers: symbols of what is in the voice: symbols of symbols of affections of the soul.

“…as letters are not the same for all, neither are the voices. — That of which these are signs (affections of the soul) are the same for everyone. The THING of which these are affections are also the same…”

Aristotle is trying to explain what we make when we speak: reciprocal relation between three terms, (1) voice, (2) affections of the soul, and (3) things. — Each of these functions as interpreter of another. But then he adds a FOURTH: LETTERS. Why??? Boetius answers: through letters Aristotle can interpret the VOICE. Letters are IN the voice.

The strategic function of letters: why phone (voice) has the capability to symbolize psyche (mind, or, the soul) is because there are letters IN it.

Letters: the minimum element of the voice: the voice indivisible: grammata.

With letters as the voice’s minimum element, he will then define human voice as AN ARTICULATION OF LETTERS.

HUMAN LANGUAGE: produced by an operation on the voice that inscribes in it letters. Alphabetical writing is FUNDAMENTAL to the mode in which our Western tradition defines language.

* * *

Emile Benveniste devoted his last course of teaching to an analysis of WRITING. What he does: He reverses the common opinion according to which language is independent of writing. Benveniste: it is only THROUGH writing that language is constituted as a system of signs.

He says: a RELAY: writing shifts voice from ear to eye, permitting language to transform/produce itself into/as a signifying system.

In writing: shifting from one sensorial system to another: from mouth-ear to hand-eye. This is the auto-semioticization of language — through writing language could transform/produce itself into/as a system of signs. In this transformation/production the voice is excluded from, and captured in, writing.

Let’s stop here for discussion…