‘Hop-hop-hop’: haunted by voices
Writing is also, very literally and even in the sense of an archi-écriture, a voice that resounds.
Samuel, o Samuel uses radio – a medium of the voice – to emphasize an insight central to the Alfacyclus, namely that we are not only drilled by voices, but that such drillings also have an impact on the way we use our voices. The speaking voice, as Mladen Dolar reminds us, is located precisely at the intersection of the cultural and the physical; as he puts it, the voice ties language to the body. Vocal tics and automatisms make audible how the body has been broken into by force. As Michiels states in an interview, the ritualized use of repetitive language in ‘psalms, songs and litanies in church impose a rhythm that continues to hold a grip on those who have soaked them up’. The rhythm of those phrases, more than their actual content, Michiels explains, have an afterlife in the subject who has absorbed them. Traces of liturgical and militaristic rhythms are present in every single sentence of Orchis Militaris and Het boek Alfa, he explains, but they remain under the skin of the text. Hence, the voices of church, army and hospital resonate in Michiels’s books, but not on the level of content. They become audible as an underlying beat, a bass line that propels the text forward.
In Het boek Alfa this underlying pulse sometimes reaches the surface when it is rendered by a specific nonsensical word, a ‘hop’ that accompanies the orders given to the protagonist. These orders are not made by concrete individuals, but issue from autonomous voices that seem to come from everywhere:
[…] the harder he tried to close his ears, the more numerous they became; they streamed towards him from the windows of classrooms, they sounded from the kitchen and bedroom, and from the church and on the street and they were at the playground, and there was hardly a minute of the day without orders, and it started early with hop out of bed and hop pray and hop go and have a wee and continued with hop pray and hop kiss your father who leaves and hop your mother who stays at home and hop your bag and hop your brother and hop straight to school with your hand holding your bag and your brother and hop pray hop be silent […]
‘Of crucial importance [to the books] are the “Links-rechts-links-rechts” and the “hop-hop-hop-hop”’, Michiels explains in an interview with Lidy van Marissing, ‘a rhythm of orders that speaks from within but is dictated by education, conscience, etc.’. Writing for Michiels is a listening to these intruding voices that are parasitic towards our own words and hold authority over us, and that Michiels likens to the voices of conscience. To use psychoanalytic terminology, Michiels is interested in the voice of the superego that, as Mladen Dolar explains, comes both from within and seems to address us as an alien, commanding voice from the outside. The superegoic voice issues from a zone situated at the ‘junction between self and Other’, as Dolar puts it, but belonging to neither. It binds the subject to the Law. Yet, as he emphasizes, according to Lacanian theory, this voice should not be confused with the Law itself. The Law, for Lacan, is articulated symbolically; it is a pact that assigns positions and provides stability. The superegoic voice, however, is an insatiable, demanding voice. It is a pure vocal imperative that makes claims upon the subject without imposing specific orders. It makes a call without communicating anything. It is a voice that addresses but does not speak. Therefore, Dolar concludes, ‘The surplus of the superego over the Law is precisely the surplus of the voice; the superego has a voice, the Law is stuck with the letter.’
The superegoic voice therefore does not speak our language. It speaks in a nonsensical series of injunctions, a ‘hop-hop-hop’, a ‘links-rechts-links-rechts’, or an ‘op-en-neer, op-en-neer’. As Slavoj Žižek writes, ‘It is this very exteriority which, according to Lacan, defines the status of the superego: the superego is a Law in so far as it is not integrated into the subject’s symbolic universe, in so far as it functions as an incomprehensible, nonsensical, traumatic injunction.’
I would like to propose that this nonsensical commanding voice is at the heart of Michiels’s later works. Het boek Alfa marks a departure from his earlier books since it emerges from the insight that coming to terms with the past involves coping with the persistence of a demanding voice that is not integrated into a symbolic universe of beliefs, ideas and ideologies, and which continues to haunt the subject even after a full symbolic reckoning of the past has taken place. The transition from the earlier allegorical or realistic narratives about the war to his later ‘texts for voices’ implies a new understanding of what ‘working through’ the past entails. In the Alfacyclus the past is no longer confronted in a quasi-confessional setting, in which issues of guilt and debt are resolved, but it appears as a series of voices, injunctions and calls that continue to affect the innermost aspect of our speech.
The persistence of these voices is made plain on the final pages of Exit . The book ends in a quasi-testament which consists of a long list of items the speaker seeks to leave behind, ranging from the ground on which he stands to the colours he has seen, the hours he has lived and the words, numbers and phrases he has used. One thing, however, is bound to remain as the text states enigmatically: the fifteenth letter of the alphabet, the ‘o’, which is printed on the otherwise empty final page of the book. This ‘o’ is, as many critics have pointed out, similar in shape to a ‘0’ – a zero. Its lingering may testify to a desire for a language emptied of meaning. But it is also the conventional letter of the vocative, the sign of the rhetorical figure of the apostrophe, as in the title of Samuel, o Samuel. Therefore, the ‘o/0’, I believe, stands for the excess of address over signification. It refers to the afterlife of a call. And since the title Samuel, o Samuel should also be read, as the postscript to the book spells out, as the acronym for SOS, an appeal transmitted over radio waves, the call of the ‘o’ can perhaps also be understood as something profoundly radiophonic, as a disembodied apostrophe, a free-floating address, cut loose from the body that uttered it yet lingering as a spectre.