Getting a word in — The theatre of voice

We become what we are through voice — our own, but also that of others. And silence sets the stage where the theatrical, vocal performance of life comes to light

by Matteo Bonazzi


Illustrations by Elisa Seitzinger

Philosophy 23 February 2023

Voice and speaking up are not psychological factors; it is not a matter of shyness, courage, or the desire to assert oneself. Nor are they technical factors: a trained voice, the emphasis, the pitch, the phonation, diaphragmatic breathing… Voice is not the expression of my personality, my character, my psychological type, nor the second mask, artificial and trained, with which I believe I can hide the first mask, the person I am. Naïve is he who believes “to have a mask for hire” and persuades himself “to have a face underneath” (Lacan, Écrits 751).

My voice is what makes me exist, what gives me life and body. Out there, my voice shows the mark of my existence written on my mask. By speaking, we pierce the silence of anonymity and assert our distinction among those that make up the complex geography of the bonds in which we are involved.

The experience of analysis involves a long work, a struggle, and a mourning that must be repeated over and over again. A struggle against the master who commands us. A struggle, however, that begins precisely when we realize that that master is us, or rather, the Other within us: the subconscious. A struggle that must go beyond challenge and dialectical contrast because what ultimately keeps us hooked to our master is not his identity but the mysterious and enigmatic thing he hides inside. Like a Socratic Silenus, the master conceals within himself the object of which we are a hostage: that which exerts on us that particular magnetism that captures and orients our existence projected onto the scene of the representation.

My voice is what makes me exist, what gives me life and body. Out there, my voice shows the mark of my existence written on my mask.

The subconscious is a theater, as Freud used to say. And it is on the scene of the representation that the battle for each of us takes place. Even if that is not where the real stakes lie. Thus, mourning means exiting the stage, being reborn beyond it, ex-sistere. Mourning is the exemplification of this struggle and this mourning that each of us does with our voice: the voice that resounds out there and that we consider our own but that is never really ours, unless we disengage it from the object that keeps it magnetically set on the stage of representation.

In 2001, thirty years after Jacques Lacan’s death, the French writer Philippe Sollers recalled the effect it had on him to listen to the French psychoanalyst as he delivered his seminar lectures: “The most important thing is Lacan’s body as he speaks. It would have been formidable to have a video document of the Seminar to make people feel that it is the body that comes out of the voice and not the other way around.”

My existence comes from my body, not from the body that is born when I enter the world, but from a body that awaits to be given speech, because it is unrealized in that very birth. We do not come into the world, but we appear in the speech of the Other: the mother announces to the father that she is expecting a child. The annunciation indicates the appearance on the scene of a subject of which indeed we begin to speak well before his birth. The subject is thus summoned by the speech of the Other: will he will have your father’s eyes? Let’s hope he won’t have my temperament? What if he follows in the footsteps of his American uncle? We come into the world because we are included in speech.

From this point of view, perhaps the most rigorous scene to convey the idea was shot by Tom Stoppard in his Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. The curtain rises; Rosencrantz has just awakened, still dazed by the dreams that struggle to abandon him, and is beckoned, “Rosencrantz!” The text of the tragedy that Shakespeare wrote for him without his knowledge is already there, all unfolded, awaiting his entrance onto the stage. So we come into the world, into the tragedy written by the Other for us. And it takes a long time and a lot of work for the sleeping Rosencrantz, of whom the script will never say or achieve anything, before he can speak, reversing the tragedy of life narrated by the Other into the farce of his own life. As Lacan recalled for children, who before speaking enter the world laughing, so we could say for those who are reborn after having accomplished their mourning and their struggle.


Speaking, therefore, means overturning the tragedy, the tragedy that life is in the discourse of the Other in which we come into the world, in the farce that drops what occluded it and held it hostage. How this reversal occurs is the mystery of the speaking body: born spoken and eternally waiting to speak. It is a matter of style, of course.

So let’s enlarge our view further: style is not a free invention, but the achievement of something that has always been there precisely because it has never been achieved. An enigmatic matrix for which it is a matter, ultimately, of grasping what is already there without ever really having been there. In philosophy, it is what we call virtual, neither real nor possible, but always on the verge of (not) being achieved. In psychoanalysis, Freud identified this element as his lost object: something that has never been and that incessantly returns as eternally lost and, therefore, insists and consists in orienting our desire. As long as we look for it, we do not find it. As Picasso affirmed: “I do not seek, I find.” And it is by finding it that style produces that characteristic double movement whereby it is precisely what it is to let fall, to send to the Other, and at the same time what returns to us as a “here it is!”

Style is not a free invention, but the achievement of something that has always been there precisely because it has never been achieved.

A movie example comes to mind: Bird, Charlie Parker’s film by Clint Eastwood, which recounts the Bebop inventor’s struggle to find his style as a boy. In a dark, smoky club in the ’30s/’40s, young Charlie is invited to take the stage in a grueling jam session. He picks up his alto sax and starts to improvise: after a while, the notes run off on their own. Charlie’s face it that of someone who has found what he was looking for, but only for himself. As Lacan says of analysis: “The subject […] begins the analysis by speaking of himself without speaking to you, or by speaking to you without speaking of himself. When he can speak to you about himself, the analysis is over.” Such is the case for young seeking Parker. Suddenly, the drum cymbal is thrown towards him to make him stop… aghast, he walks away silent and distraught. A few years later, at a Dizzy Gillespie concert, a man is holding a small alto sax in his arms; it looks like a small flute that plays a rhythm and a phrasing never heard before; it’s Charlie Parker: Bird.

Style is what appears where there should be nothing, at the point where the speech of the Other shows its structural incompleteness: the silence of the Other calls for speaking. In between, however, a certain anguish must take its time, what it needs, until it dissolves into the rhythm of a newfound immediacy.

In speaking, it is a matter of rewriting the intimate and enigmatic way in which words and silence pass the baton of existence for each of us. We often think, naively, that words and silence are in contrast, that they hinder each other, that they fight. This is so because we do not observe more closely what, for example, musical experience can teach us: silence is not there, alone, before words, as we might say, come to break it. If anything, speech is what makes silence appear: like the pauses in music that are created between one note and another, neither before nor after, but all around, we might say. So every word, as it happens, makes the silence that breaks and also manifests fall around it. And so it is also for the experience of silence, so eloquent in analysis. To keep silent by speaking, to speak by keeping silent: this is the art that makes us continually enter and leave the stage and grants us the satisfaction of existence. Of course, we must lose the illusion, and perhaps the hope, that life is on the stage, that it is representation, without also being its reverse, not its opposite; the silent obscenity that gives us the breath to be able to sustain what we have to say.

Style is what appears where there should be nothing, at the point where the speech of the Other shows its structural incompleteness.

Socrates knew this, so he conveyed the radiant experience of speaking with a subtle irony. As in the Symposium, he brought to the polis the art of conversation, of confrontation, of dialogue, on which we still base our modern western democracies and the light of their representation. But also, in those words, among those exchanges, he bore witness to an abysmal silence, the one that kept him on the threshold before entering the stage of dialogue, absorbed in himself: the atopia of Socrates, his silence, is something we should take better care of in the time of generalized representation we have ended up in.

As Michel De Certeau pointed out, speaking out is always a political act in this sense. It shows suddenly that we are neither inert objects on the stage of the world, nor subjects spoken by the Other and his narration. Speaking makes the speaker exist in his own way, proves that there has been work done, that the truth achieved now gives that solitude that only the careful and stubborn confrontation with the Other makes possible. Because as long as the subject speaks, he cannot but speak on the basis of the words that the Other offers him and has offered him—the difference, therefore, cannot be made so much by what he says, but by the fact that he speaks. And it is here that the abyss of Lacan’s question arises: from where does the subject take his voice every time he speaks? He takes it, we could therefore answer, on this side of the word and of the discourse of the Other, in what, before any representation and signifying intentionality, has been impressed on his body and resonates with his style.

Speaking makes the speaker exist in his own way, proves that there has been work done, that the truth achieved now gives that solitude that only the careful and stubborn confrontation with the Other makes possible.

If we want to understand what a rediscovered voice is, let’s listen again to that scenic masterpiece which is Bene versus Gassman. The two insult each other, challenge each other, recognize each other in order to misidentify each other… but above all, and this is what interests us here, the two do not find each other, they do not do the same job, as Gassman claims, because Bene is showing us the place that we are interested in: not what I can do with the voice that the Other has offered me, what I can do with it in the representation space in which I am, subject to the Other, to his words, to his feeling, to his desire that becomes mine insofar as it is devoted to recognition. No, Bene tells us that no matter how much one may be at the pinnacle of representation, what matters most is offstage—how then can one bring it onto the stage, into the life of the bond, of the polis? To speak is to bring into existence what representation inevitably erases.


That’s where we can get the voice so that a difference may take place in the context of media communication. In the era in which Facebook finally gives, we might say, the floor to everyone, the voice is silent. Everyone is free to say what they want, but perhaps they do not know what they actually want. Voice moves us beside this continuous media chatter, between silence and speech, urging us to speak beyond recognition so that something is actually said. It is no longer a matter of exchanging opinions, but rather of establishing a unique enunciation that echoes each person’s existence.

A policy of existence would originate from here: it is a matter of giving a voice, of echoing what in the exchange, of goods and words, always passes by, canceling itself out. In that voice, I am neither I nor the other; our common being happens and signals the ideal of another satisfaction, of another polis, to come.