Essay: Anne Carson’s ‘The Gender of Sound’

It is in large part according to the sounds people make that we judge them sane or insane, male or female, good, evil, trustworthy, depressive, marriageable, moribund, likely or unlikely to make war on us, little better than animals, inspired by God. These judgments happen fast and can be brutal. Aristotle tells us that the highpitched voice of the female is one evidence of her evil disposition, for creatures who are brave or just (like lions, bulls, roosters and the human male) have large deep voices. If you hear a man talking in a gentle or highpitched voice you know he is a kinaidos (“calamite”). The poet Aristophanes puts a comic turn on this cliché in his Ekklesiazousai: as the women of Athens are about to infiltrate the Athenian assembly and take over political process, the feminist leader Praxagora reassures her fellow female activists that they have precisely the right kind of voices for this task.  Because, as she says, “You know that among the young men the ones who turn out to be terrific talkers are the ones who get fucked a lot” (1 13-1 14).

Anne Carson’s convincing and well-researched essay lists a history of the gendered voice, from Sophocles to Gertrude Stein. Here she outlines what is at stake in our assumptions of sound, questioning whether the concept of ‘self-control’ is a barrier to acknowledging other forms of human order. An illuminating text in relation to areas of Meredith Monk’s use and development of ‘extended vocal technique’, Carson’s perspective is invaluable to wider debates on social order, both past and present. Read more.

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