Speaking Subject, Virtual Subject

Curator's Note

Alvin Lucier’s 1969 audio-work, "I am sitting in a room," (http://www.ubu.com/sound/lucier.html) demonstrates—through aural mise-en-abyme—that, when the subject announces its being through speech, such (re)mediated articulation foregrounds the subject’s fundamental virtuality, rather than its actuality. Lucier’s analog masterpiece, which features the artist playing back and re-recording several times a recording of him narrating a meta-text, anticipates the era of digital virtualities, avatars and immersive media which we inhabit now.

If virtual is that which surrounds the actual like a cloud, perpetually emanating from and being absorbed by the actual—as Deleuze describes it—then Lucier’s work is indeed a masterpiece of Deluzian virtuality. But Lucier’s work doesn’t stop there—it challenges us to think about what remains when the virtual and the actual become increasingly less distinct. For Lucier, this remainder—that is, the echo that reverberates once the audible passes into inaudibility—is the substance of subjectivity. Lucier’s subject is, at once, entirely virtual and utterly material.

Gradual destitution of subjectivity is central to "I am sitting in a room." Lucier—his speech rendered hesitant by stammering—reads the following passage, which eventually becomes incomprehensible noise: "I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have" (emphasis mine).

This is more than a meta-text about analog audio recording. This is a subject virtualizing itself in the shape of a defiant address to the domain of language and audition that lies beyond the particular scope of subjectivity. The virtual subject speaks loudly in a voice that is incomprehensible in its unrelenting particularity. The spirit, here, is a bone that crumbles like chalk—but in this very room, with this very rhythm of this speaking voice. Something remains.



Soumitra this is a really fascinating suggestion. I'm intrigued by your point that this audio recording is an anticipation of the digital processes we encounter so regularly today. In thinking about the material of the virtual, as I have myself, I've been wondering what is to be gained and I think your suggestion about subjectivity provides a great avenue for further reflection. My own post later this week will speak to a certain material quality of the virtual as well, so I'm curious if your post is part of something larger you've been thinking about as it relates the subject to the virtual?

Thank you, Adam, for organizing this week's theme. This is fantastic, all to your credit. I don't know if my post is part of something larger. I know that I believe that my post is part of something larger, that it addresses a field broader than itself. Without this belief I am not a subject, yes? I hope you will forgive the above rhetoric--with it, I mean to gesture to the crux of the issue here. What I am trying to point to is this: the subject must found itself, in a space broader than the limits of the subject, at a time that retroactively anticipates the moment of this foundation--and this is the belief upon which subjectivity is founded. The question is, does the subject believe this, or does is know that it believes this? This question, I think, leads us to the fine grain of the materiality of the virtual. If we agree that the subject is fundamentally virtual--even before we had "virtual reality"--then we HAVE to ask what does this virtuality *feel* like, because the virtual dimension of subjectivity foregrounds affect (i.e. feeling) like nothing else. So, I look forward to reading, in the coming days, what you have to say about this.

I enjoyed your clip and commentary very much. Thank you for such an astute contribution. I hope you will forgive me now as I extend the discussion a bit into comparing Deleuze and Lacan re: the subject and remainders. As a Lacanian, I approach how both Lacan and Deleueze present the subject as virtual, but in different ways. In another essay I've written (pub. in Psychoanalyzing Cinema), on the film "Run Lola Run," I try to decipher how the two approaches generally follow along the metapysics of the gap (Lacan), the subject is always split from within and is paradoxically excessive and lacking, vs. the flux of Deleuze's perspective. And while Deleuze sees repetition of difference as the opening to new ways of being, with Lacan we can distinguish between modes of repetition in the Symbolic, Imaginary, and the Real. Here, Alenka Zupančič says it best: if Deleuze is interested in the failure of repetition, Lacan is more interested in what “disturbs the failure of repetition,” or in “what happens in the intervals between” (Odd One In: On Comedy, 162, 172). In your clip, (and I appreciated your italics very much), the semblance is lost, and so there is a remainder, but given the drastically different topologies of Lacan and Deleuze, how does this remainder serve to reconfigure the virtual subject? I can't help but see the remainder as the leftover Voice, a love-object that is not placeable in the same way that the History Channel's "Life After People's" narrator comes from nowhere and doesn't "make sense." It is a remainder. Can you tell us a bit more about the place of the remainder in your note above. I see it similarly to the excess/remainder when all "sense" is gone. But what is the new that is produced (in Deleuze) in terms of this remainder? You've give us a lot of interesting things to think about.

Sheila, thank you so much for your kind and insightful comments. My reference to Deleuze is certainly not an end in itself. The absent figure, in my post, is Lacan--and you astutely point this out. But, I think Lacan demands to be included as an absence that nonetheless forms the contour of the articulation. I don't think Lucier's piece is an exercise in Deleuzian flux or virtuality. Lucier exceeds Deleuze, by producing something--the aural object that remains, in the end of the tape, in excess of its sense--that gives a kind of ground to subjectivity, while demonstrating that subjectivity is nothing but virtual. But, this ground is not immanence (as Deleuze would have it); it is, rather, a remainder of the signifying chain, that, by virtue of its specificity, calls attention to the materiality of the Real that is at the core of subjectivity. So, yes, what remains in Lucier's tape is the Lacanian voice qua objet petit a. And yes, this remainder, this voice, does not make sense. But, in not making sense (i.e. not meaning anything at all), Lucier's aural remainder lets us encounter "sense" in its proper, material, sensory, sensuous dimension--the grain of voice, the tone of the room, the hiss of the tape. A sense/affect that appears in and as the absence of sense/meaning.

Soumitra, Many thanks for taking the time to provide a detailed elaboration and response to my questions. This encountering of "sense" in its proper, material sensory, sensuous dimension in Lucier, as you say above is precisely (and surprisingly to me) the same thing that happens in comedy - where the Real (usually through mimicking or redoubling) repeats the Real, momentarily bringing it into material form, and the repetition of this “non-sense” makes us aware that sense always-already has the structure of an error (Zupancic also says this somewhere in her text.) And I thank you for introducing me to Lucier and for selecting this clip.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.