Saying ‘b’: Michiels’s Works for Radio
The voice is that which, within the signifier, resists meaning.
Slavoj Žižek, Gaze and Voice as Love Objects
The relation between voice and violence is further explored in the scripts Michiels wrote for radio in the early 1970s, published under the title Samuel, o Samuel. These were later added to the Alfacyclus as part 3 ½ – that is, as an interruption into the ‘proper’ series. Although only two of the book’s four texts were used as radio plays (broadcast by Dutch, Flemish and German radio), all four should be understood as inherently ‘radiophonic’, since they are all texts for voices, as the postscript to the book points out. Formally, they radicalize the previous instalments of the cycle. Orchis Militaris and Het boek Alfa still contained hints of character, setting and plot. These categories are largely absent in Samuel, o Samuel. What remains is a series of dialogues between disembodied, acousmatic voices, to use Michel Chion’s term: voices that are not anchored in particular bodies and therefore exist only as spectral, shadowlike beings, absent in their very presence, hovering in some indeterminate space.
Of all the voices collected in Samuel, o Samuel, those of ‘Hoe laat is het?’ (broadcast by the Dutch KRO and the German Süddeutscher Rundfunk in 1972) are perhaps the most spectral and therefore inherently radiophonic. Devoid of plot, character and development, ‘Hoe laat is het?’ is best understood as a composition for voices, a series of ‘movements’ in which different modalities of language are examined in various tempos. Opening with a dialogue on writing, notating and registering, it continues to probe the ways words can be used to think, anticipate, imagine, doubt, plan and, in a final scene (which renders the nonsensical dialogues between three ‘radio-cars’ and a ‘central station’), to establish contact. These movements do not offer dramatic dialogues but rather careful and systematic examinations of the conventional phrases we use to think, plan, doubt, etc. The very exhaustiveness of the lists of phrases spoken gives the impression that they should not be understood as the vehicles we use to express ourselves; rather, our conventions form a rigid framework that delimits what can be thought, doubted or planned.
The second movement, for example, is a montage of a recorded voice that reads (in what sounds like a lecture hall) a dictionary definition of the philosophical meanings of the word ‘idea’ as a platonic eternal truth, an opinion or a conception of something. This recording is played seven times, and each playback is followed by a dialogue that undermines precisely the notion that an idea can be defined solely by its content. Ideas, these dialogues suggest, are not abstract; they arise in specific contexts that stipulate genres of speech relying on conventional phrases. ‘Ideas’ to seduce someone, to engage in political action, to embark on a journey or to plan to make a film are all articulated in idiomatic expressions that have the ring of clichés. As the movement progresses, these preconceived phrases become shorter and more formulaic until, finally, the dialogue is transformed into a cut-up of recorded fragments of sentences – from which the content of the ‘idea’ gradually disappears, leaving only the formal and socially acceptable linguistic form. The scene ends in a series of disjunctive jump-cuts of empty phrases, which transforms the voice that utters them into a stuttering, mechanical-sounding mouthpiece for a series of conventions devoid, precisely, of ideas.
A similar almost violent assault on the voice takes place in the following scene, that starts as a long, repetitive monologue in which a voice, speaking with the terse slowness and reasonableness of authority, addresses someone to remind him of ‘the rule’ that the person who says ‘a’ should also say ‘b’. This saying of ‘a’, which the voice insists has taken place, is defined in a purely physical way as an opening of the mouth, a lowering of the chin and a movement within the throat. The rule stipulates that this be followed by a sound issuing from the same bodily opening (and not, as the voice patiently spells out, by a sound from an opening down below). The speaker continues to make this demand in an increasingly pressing way, until the piece cuts to a montage of a series of vocal sounds issuing from different throats that scream, sing, chant, beg, stutter and cry in a rhythmic way.
The piece, then, plays with the tension between language and voice – or rather with a tension within the voice as, on the one hand, a transmitter of signs and phrases and, on the other hand, a purely bodily sound. However, the physical vocal sounds in ‘Hoe laat is het?’ are not metonyms that stand for the uniqueness of the speaking individuals, nor do they simply highlight what Roland Barthes calls ‘the grain of the voice’, ‘the vibrating of the cavities, muscles and membranes of a singular body’. The voice, in Michiels’s radioplay, and the pre-linguistic utterances it emits, is ‘cut up’ and streamlined by power relations. Emitting an ‘a’ is in itself already a ‘saying b,’ a response to an injunction or demand. The voice is therefore always already ‘drilled’. This is made clear, not only in the passages discussed above, but more generally by the fact that all dialogues start with the question ‘what time is it?’ This question does not ask for information, but it is invariably taken as a call to align oneself with a socially imposed tempo. This is illustrated by a dialogue that starts with ‘what time is it – you’d better hurry’, to which several exasperated voices respond by listing an extensive series of speech-acts they have uttered, ranging from opening a meeting to praising, dreaming, swearing and promising, and which ends in a cacophony out of which one voice emerges that says, in an exhausted way (and closer to the microphone), ‘I have used signs, numbers, the alphabet, words, concepts, slogans, prayers. I have used obscenities…. I have used my tongue. Without pause, I have used my tongue. And you thought I didn’t hurry?’