In Australia, my voice identifies me

In Australia, my voice identifies me. The Australian Tax Office introduced a voiceprint technology to their telephone services in 2015, as a way to verify the identities of callers. Now anybody who phones the ATO is prompted by a pre-recorded voice on the other end of the line to repeat these words. In Australia, my voice identifies me.

I’m saying it to prove that I am who I am, but rarely have I ever sounded so alien to myself. The cadence is all wrong. I’ve been told that my voice is becoming an object of algorithmic scrutiny, and I’ve become too self-conscious. I notice how Australian my accent sounds when I say the word “Australia” – am I hamming it up to sound more convincing? I wonder what the machine can hear; it pins my voice to a particular legal entity, but does it pick up on any of the more transient marks that the voice carries – indications of lack of sleep, or lack of confidence, or this lingering hay fever?

Voiceprint technology works because our individual voices are supposed to vary as much as our fingerprints do. But while fingerprints are actually imprinted on surfaces where they can be retrieved as legible traces, voices are air-bound events. The word ‘voiceprint’ negates the distinctions that usually exist between orality (thought of in terms of immateriality and transience) and writing (which is on the side of fixity and retrievability). So if I want to get through to the tax office, the breath that I channel into words must be materialised as a legible imprint.

The recognisable attributes of my voice are determined in part by internal bodily details – not only the specificities of my lungs and larynx and tongue but also things like the arrangement of my nasal hairs, the amount of saliva I produce, and the shapes of my teeth. All of the body’s bits contribute to the sounds that come out of mouths; as Fred Moten puts it, “your ass is in what you sing” (In The Break, 2003).

But the voice is not only a product of a body’s given traits, it is also a malleable material that becomes imprinted by external factors. All sorts of exposures (to films, friends, songs, traumas) can settle into the grain of your voice. The places and conditions in which you grow up will have lasting impact on your accents and vocabularies. And the ongoing impressionability of the voice is evidenced by the training programmes and medical procedures that are geared towards reshaping it (such as vocal feminisation / masculinisation therapies undertaken as part of gender confirmation and transition processes; or the growing trend for Botox injections in the throat, which can temporarily bring the vocal pitch down).

The interiorities and exteriorities of a body are of course always constituting each other. Our flesh might be partly determined by biological inheritance, but it’s also prosthetically extended, pharmaceutically maintained, politically produced, technologically mediated, socially supported, and so on. My environments and habits take on physical inscription in my body, and thereby carry through to the sounds of my voice – and the ways in which my body and voice relate to the world can determine the formation of that world’s realities.

Think of language. It’s something we inherit as an existing structure, but its production is also an ongoing work in progress. Through its users, it becomes something other than what it was. We acquire languages and we press back into them – words are imprinted into bodies which imprint themselves with and back into words.

‘Voice’ is equated with ‘unique individuality’ not only in the context of government biometrics, but also whenever people are encouraged to find their voice – whether by pop psychology and wellness industry rhetorics, or by writing teachers who are invested in notions of personal creative expression.

I like the verb ‘express’ in relation to breastfeeding: we express ourselves when we shoot nutritional fluids out from our nipples. But writing doesn’t have to work like this. Rather than pursue notions of finding one’s voice as an affirmation of one’s own special interior selfhood, I prefer to think about writing in terms of listening, and othering. It involves being imprinted as much as it involves imprinting oneself.

And while my voice identifies me as a unique individual tax-paying subject, the voice can also help us to rethink notions of the body as a delineated, self-contained whole. Because a voice might have its origins inside a body, but it only exists by going away from that body. It happens by exiting through holes in my skull and entering into holes in your skull – or it happens somewhere in between our skulls, but that somewhere is nowhere in particular. The voice is an unlocalisable event which is determined by its own departure. And as it accumulates leftovers from its departing encounters, it reminds us that bodies are not bounded units; they’re sites of relations which absorb and leak and interpenetrate and leave bits of themselves behind.

 

 

This text was written for LEFTOVERS, a project by Gianmaria Andreetta, Marion Goix and Angharad Williams for 3 137 at Art Athina in Athens in May 2017. It was read aloud while being transfer-printed onto the LEFTOVERS tablecloth.

Image: The ‘Vocal Memnon’ in Egypt.