[Note: this story was written for and read out at the launch event of Objects of Feminism, South London Gallery, Wednesday, 8 November 2017]
In 1983, Patricia Highsmith wrote a text called Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. I decided to take up Highsmith’s guidelines from this text and very loosely apply them to the text I wrote for Objects of Feminism entitled ‘Towards a Feminism of the Void’ in order to write a very short story. In my contribution to the collection, I tried to defend a certain idea of ‘strategic nothingness’, and expand upon an idea of a feminism of the void, so I wrote things like: ‘[We need] a revaluation of void-values, in which void-reason (the standpoint of the nothing) trumps … stuff-reason, where a cock is merely a cigar, and where a cold, empty place is instead a place of great comfort (if the rectum is a grave, is the womb a tomb)?’ and I also wrote: ‘[a feminism of the void] could be a renunciation of all the contracts we never signed but nevertheless find ourselves party to – compulsory heterosexuality, the regime of the visible, being treated poorly on the basis of resentment and anger that we have no ability to stop’.
Mark on a seaside trip, c. mid-2000s
There is a line in Byung-Chul Han’s book The Burnout Society that makes me think of you: ‘the violence of positivity does not deprive, it saturates; it does not exclude, it exhausts.’ You were the person who diagnosed this condition better than anyone else, always. You lived the violence of positivity even as you did your best to harness it. You refracted everything, engaged everything and everyone. You dissolved cynicism in energy. You could go to sleep on the floor, like a lemur, and wake up and continue the conversation as if sleep was but a momentary blip between real desire, the desire for perpetual engagement, for never-ending conversation.
[Piece for The Wire’s issue 352 on ‘Words and Music’, June 2013].
Once you start listening you can’t stop hearing it. The voice – female, or female-sounding at least, pre-recorded ‘real’ voices or mechanised tones, or, often, a weird cut-up mixture of both, dominates the sonic landscape. From the supermarket checkout machines with their chaste motherish inquiries (‘have you swiped your Nectar card?’) to repeated assertions regarding the modes of securitised paranoia (‘in these times of heightened security’), the female voice operates as a central asset in the continued securitisation and control of contemporary space, cutting across what little is left of the public realm and providing the appearance and the illusion of efficiency, calm and reassurance in commercial environments. It is estimated that 70% of recorded voices in the UK are female, or female-sounding. We all know this vocal tone, because we have no choice but to know it: it spans a narrow range between reassuring and relatively high-pitched, though ever-efficient, to deeper, more refined and sales-oriented: from clipped bus stop name announcements to Cadbury’s Caramel bunny and Mark’s and Spencer’s ads that sound like you’re wading through sexy gravy.
[A version of this text was published in The Acoustic City, edited by Matthew Gandy and BJ Nilsen, JOVIS Publishers, 2014)
Four questions to begin with: What is the pitch of the neoliberal city? How does the pitch of the city construct images of and for the humanity that travels through it? How does gender relate to control of this space – corporate, commercial, privatised space and the few remaining places we might (often erroneously, or perhaps nostalgically) refer to as “public space”? How does the soundscape of the city relate to forms of control – what I will call here “soft coercion” – that often goes unnoticed, or at least blends into the background and becomes simply part of the tapestry of the urban sonic environment, alongside the whirr of traffic, the babble of the crowd, birdsong, sirens? We may think of the sound of the city as somehow being ‘neutral’ on its own terms, or at least cacophonous enough to escape linear description, but by paying careful attention to the patterns of urban sounds we do more than simply listen: the over-familiarity of certain sonic tropes starts to tell us something key about the way in which both gender and control are constructed and reinforced.
In October 2015, Audrey Wollen posted a picture on Instagram with the message ‘a PSA brought to u by ur local chapter of Female Nothingness’. The picture comprises a black and white composite image with the words BEWARE MALE ARTISTS MAKING ARTWORK ABOUT EMPTINESS/NOTHING DOES NOT BELONG TO YOU/GIRLS OWN THE VOID/BACK OFF FUCKERS!!!! next to crudely crossed out images of a John Cage manuscript, and works by, amongst others, Yves Klein (Le Vide (The Void)), Bas Jan Ader (Broken Fall (Organic). Amsterdamse Bos. Holland 1971) and Robert Barry, (Inert Gas Series: Helium. Sometime during the Morning of March 5, 1969, 2 Cubic Feet of Helium Will Be Released into the Atmosphere, 1969).Wollen’s piece, alongside her ‘Sad Girl Theory’ (where she states, and I agree, that ‘the sadness of girls should be recognised as an act of resistance’), is brilliant, both for its immediately blunt but recognisable vantage point, its militancy and its humour. ‘GIRLS OWN THE VOID’ – but what, we might ask, pushing past the humour, does it mean to own (the) nothing? A nothing that is possessed and taken away at the same time. Wollen’s synonymy – emptiness, nothing, void – and the defensive possessive ‘BACK OFF FUCKERS!!!!’ posits an ironic essentialism on two levels: the very idea of owning nothing, and the idea that ‘girls’ have a privileged insight into the nothing by virtue of being ‘girls’. It is precisely the sort of joke/non-joke that cannot be fully articulated, because it takes place on the very terrain of representation itself, which is also where sex and language do their obscure work. In this sense the joke morphs into something much more serious, revealing once again, that all jokes are acts of aggression, even in defensive formation.