Naomi Waltham-Smith — Review of “Sonic Intimacy: Voice, Species, Technics (Or, How to Listen to the World)”


by Naomi Waltham-Smith

Review of Dominic Pettman, Sonic Intimacy: Voice, Species, Technics (Or, How to Listen to the World) 

What if the world had a voice? What would a world suffering under the burden of human dominance over the environment—what would that geological epoch known as the Anthropocene—say to us? Dominic Pettman asks us to imagine such a world in which not just human beings or animals but all living and inanimate objects, and even virtual technologies have voices. Sonic Intimacy invites us to tune into the seductive voice of an OS in Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her, the swansong of the Sirens, the meowing of a cat, the melancholy songs of a lonely whale, the wind in the trees, even “the imploring squeal of a garden gate, crying out for oil” (49). This is a world in which listening, too, is not confined to human ears. In Pettman’s book, listening is even extended beyond the animal world in a range of examples both banal and symbolic: if mothers listen to their daughters’ voices on the phone and dogs to His Master’s Voice on the gramophone, lamps also prick up their ears at the clap of a hand and microphones listen for algorithmically determined shapes in order to identity specific words or even voices.

Pettman’s call to hear those other voices and thus become those other kinds of listeners stems to no small degree from our deafness to what is arguably the greatest threat the world faces today and to the human and ecological crises that climate change is already precipitating. “Alarmed scientists try to tell us on a daily basis,” Pettman points out, “that we are not listening to the earth, which is—elliptically perhaps, and in its own cryptic way—trying to tell us that it is in trouble” (6–7). He argues that in the ongoing calamity that is the Anthropocene, it is vital that we challenge anthropocentric constructions of the voice and of the ear. If there is one main target in Sonic Intimacy, it is human exceptionalism. This critical outlook has shaped Pettman’s work in post-humanism more generally. For instance, the recent Creaturely Love observes how the images of human desire we construct tend to disavow our own animal natures.[1] Pettman’s earlier Human Error (published in 2011) explored mistaken efforts to define humanity in its opposition to machines and instead posits a cybernetic triangle of human, animal, and machine so as to decenter the human.[2] Humanity’s species-being, as he argued in that book, had become “specious-being,” not simply a mistaken identity, but the mistake of identity.

Each of Sonic Intimacy’s four chapters explores a voice that is, if not post-human, in some way more or less than human—a negation of the human. The first, devoted to the voices that speak to us from machines, centers on a discussion of Jonze’s Her, in which a heart-broken man falls in love with his operating system “Samantha.” The film illustrates that bodies do not simply produce voices; conversely, voices can also produce bodies. As an awkward scene in which Samantha ventriloquizes the body of a mute stranger shows, acousmatic voices can be more involving and erotic than actual bodies. In this way Pettman establishes the idea of a sonic intimacy that is intimate precisely in having shed its physical presence. This observation leads Pettman to seek to explain the absence of “aural porn” on the internet (yes, dear reader, such are the surprising twists and turns of this riveting book!). If the voice, untethered from the overdetermined female body, were allowed to circulate unchecked, it would threaten the entire patriarchal system—a system that depends precisely on the exclusion and capture of an inarticulate cry consistently coded as female or animal. Hence—paving the way for the next chapter on the gendered voice—there exists a voyeuristic regime of listening that “wrenches a sexual sound from the body of the other” (21) in order to gratify the male listener with an assurance of their subjective agency.

In this logic we can discern a trace of the critique of sovereignty advanced by Giorgio Agamben, a thinker whom Pettman evokes on more than one occasion and who, like Pettman, takes his inspiration from the deconstructive logic of exappropriation. Deconstructive essays such as Jacques Derrida’s “Tympan,” for example, suggest that philosophical listening does not simply exclude its outside but seeks to master it and make it its own. But Agamben’s point—as Pettman acknowledges in a note referencing the book Echolalias by Agamben’s translator Daniel Heller-Roazen (100n17)—is that what appears to be outside language is in fact its condition of possibility.[3] As Agamben argues in Language and Death, meaningful human speech can only emerge on condition that the inarticulate animal cry withdraws. Philosophy, though, has traditionally forgotten precisely this withdrawal that makes language possible (what Derrida calls the withdrawal of the withdrawal) and has imagined in its place in its place a bodily presence that appears to lie beyond the bounds of the linguistic. Agamben on the contrary argues that the apparently non-linguistic is nothing other the pure possibility of language that goes unheard in every act of speaking.[4]

That much of this theory remains in the background leaves Pettman free to write engagingly without getting mired in thorny philosophical debates. Keeping the sustained theorizing largely underground lets Pettman’s prose sparkle. Provocative ideas flow with one intriguing example after another, but this is one of the moments when I would have welcomed a more rigorous corps-à-corps confrontation with Agamben’s theory of Voice. Agamben has a lot to say about what happens when the disavowed condition of possibility begins to circulate in an autonomous sphere—something he specifically connects to analyses of the glorious body, of commodification, and of pornography. Agamben’s commodified body is detached in the pure spectacle from its sacralization, its ineffability and its legally and culturally authorized uses and hence appears as a pure potentiality for new uses. How could Pettman develop Agamben’s reflections on pornography that have always focused on the visual, shifting the focus from visibility to audibility? And how would he situate his own arguments in relation to Agamben’s efforts to dislocate the aporias of metaphysics? When at the beginning of the book, Pettman recalls the prenatal experience of sound, how does this compare with Agamben’s notion of infancy (referenced only in passing at 108n5)? There is little discussion—with the possible exception of Hedy Lamarr’s silent on-screen orgasm—of voices that hold their capacity to sound in reserve.

Pettman turns in the third chapter to the animal voice. In a chapter indebted to the late Derrida’s ideas on animality, the highlight is a scene with a cockatoo that Pettman contends “deconstructs the cherished metaphysics of (humanist) presence, far more economically and effectively than Derrida does in his writings” (62). The cockatoo was adopted by new owners after a bitter divorce but continues to reenact the no doubt traumatizing arguments it was forced to witness in its previous life with an invective of curse words hurled out with a bitter tone and even the aggravated body language of rejection and resentment. This scene illustrates the difficulty of assigning an owner to the voice: while it is on one level the bird’s voice, audible and present in the room, it also brings to life vividly the original arguing couple. This cockatoo, like the parrot that betrays its owner by reproducing the salacious sounds of the porn he secretly watches, reveals that it is not just imitative animals who are ventriloquized, but we humans too, especially “when we are in the ecstatic, agonistic throes of jouissance or fury.”

From this Pettman draws the conclusion—albeit one that is hardly new—that there is no simple hierarchy of human over animal, for humans can readily be “reduced” to the “animalistic” under the pressure of certain circumstances. The more thoroughgoing Derridean point that this scene makes—one that Pettman hints at without saying it explicitly—is not only that the human-animal opposition may be deconstructed but that this moreover hinges on a more radical deconstruction of the proper tout court. There is no proper human voice not because humans sometimes cry out in animal voices or because animals sometimes seem to speak to one another. Rather, it is impossible to decide between the two because there is no voice that belongs to any of us, whether human or animal.

Against a tradition that reserves meaningful speaking and listening as a uniquely human privilege, Pettman thus calls in the final chapter for us to lend our ears to all the voices of the earth, to the vox mundi in which all manner of creatures, entities, and phenomena are present to us. In this Pettman reveals that his concerns are not simply ecological or political but are also properly philosophical, even if he is sometimes coy about asserting this ambition. In other words, Pettman is interested in how Being is present to us as a voice—how it exists for us as we listen to those voices. To this extent, Sonic Intimacy is, despite the framing it often adopts, not chiefly about issues of technology, ecology, or desire. Rather, these themes become occasions to pursue an unashamedly philosophical project: that is, the deconstruction of the metaphysics of voice. To this extent, Pettman’s continues a sequence that extends from Heidegger through French deconstruction: philosophy as listening to Being.

The parenthetical description in the subtitle “Or, How to Listen to the World,” reveals that there is one philosophical voice in particular that commands Pettman’s attention, even if it is not given the sustained hearing that one might expect. It is Jean-Luc Nancy who tells us, in the face of a rampant globalization that renders the world uninhabitable, that, to be a part of a world and not a mere agglomeration of wealth, we must “share a part of its inner resonances.”[5] Only then can the world take place and can we inhabit it. There are tantalizing references to Nancy scattered throughout the text. There’s a brief mention of his conception of ontology as resonant referral to explain the expropriation of the voice (44–45) and later there’s an unacknowledged and undeveloped evocation of Nancy’s phrase “birth to presence” (89).

Pettman writes frequently of acousmatic voices where the actual sounding is separated from the source, like the cockatoo. It is tempting, therefore, to imagine Nancy as a kind of disavowed ventriloquist, for Sonic Intimacy—deliberately mixing metaphors here to show the contact between resonance-as-spacing and touch—has Nancy’s fingerprints all over it. The Birth to Presence begins precisely with the same question of defining the human that preoccupies Pettman. The epoch of representation, suggests Nancy, originates with human exceptionalism, with the moment at which the human species being acquired its identity by virtue of one defining characteristic or another. “There is, perhaps, no humanity (and, perhaps, no animality)” wonders Nancy, “that does not include representation.”[6] The task is to think the unraveling of this limit, to think “what, in man, passes infinitely beyond man.” So, if Nancy asks what it is in the human that exceeds the bounds of its exceptional determination, Pettman examines how the exceptional exceeds the bounds of its human definition and thus dissolves the exception. For example, if the human is defined by having a voice, there is part of the human that is not exhausted in its vocality, and there is part of vocality that is not exhausted by the category of the human. Voice and humanity do not coincide. These are two faces of a mutual contamination. Humanity is thereby liberated from its phonocentric determination and vocality spills over the edges of the human into animal cries and the sounds produced by plants, inanimate objects, and intangible algorithms—disseminated throughout the univocity of the vox mundi at large.

Nancy’s terms of “listening,” “world,” and “being” bear distinctly Heideggerian overtones. Pettman dismisses Heidegger’s suggestion that the animal is poor in world and hence poor in hearing. Adopting Agamben’s critique of what he calls the “anthropological machine” and Derrida’s notion of animot, Pettman has elsewhere not hesitated to point out that Agamben himself fails to get beyond the Heideggerian horizon when he retains boredom, for instance, “as a uniquely human curse and/or privilege.”[7] It is precisely the attunement between beings and their environment that Pettman challenges with his notion of intimacy. He suggests that a sense of self—one intimacy with one’s self if you like—is produced “through the vocal back-and-forths with others—and with the environment” (59). Although Pettman here attributes this notion of back-and-forth to Deleuze and Guattari’s formulation of the refrain, it would surely not have escaped his attention that Nancy describes presence as a “coming and going,” a “back and forth”[8]—what he elsewhere calls a “diapason-subject.”[9]

This leaves one wondering about the nature of the back-and-forths between Pettman and deconstruction. Does Nancy provide the tools to think about the voice beyond the horizon of anthropogenesis, or are the examples of post-human and non-human voices ways to realize the full implications of Nancy’s deconstruction of sonic presence? One challenge for the reader is that Pettman tends to marginalize precisely those thinkers with whom he is most intimate. He spills more ink, for instance, critiquing Adriana Cavarero than engaging with Derrida. A discussion of the concept of intimacy comes only in the conclusion and many of Pettman’s back-and-forths with deconstruction are reserved to endnotes. One thing that the book could define more clearly is the extent to which the deconstructions of phonocentrism and logocentrism are mutually implicated. In the main body of the text, Pettman suggests that voice is the foundation of logocentrism and in the notes he specifies more precisely that “phōnē is the necessary but not sufficient condition for logos.” Citing Derrida’s claim that phonocentrism appears to be universal, while logocentrism is not, he argues that “the trick is foreground the multitude of voices, without being ‘phonocentric’” (108n8), by which Pettman seems to mean without positing the voice as transcendental.

There are two questions that remain. First, from the perspective of grammatology: why retain vocality at all even in its plurality? Derrida’s famous attack on Husserl targets the false notion that one is simultaneously present to oneself in hearing-oneself-speak. Already in Husserl the account of temporalization reveals that the supposed unity of the “now” is in fact divided from it—that is, is always already spacing. This is why Pettman insists, against Cavarero, on the significance of time-shifted contexts, in which presence is dispersed. The question remains, though: why continue to speak of a voice if one is thinking of something closely approximating Nancy’s resonant referral? One possible answer is that these voices stripped of logos and bodily presence, represent a pure intention to signify—something close to Agamben’s notion of Voice as the potentiality for language. As Nancy develops the idea that listening-as-resonance is the condition of possibility for sense, he cites a passage from Agamben in which he thinks of Voice as the rustling of animals in their retreat. It would be fascinating to see Pettman engage with this citation in order to specify more precisely the relation between voice and listening. For Pettmann, this relation is defined by the concept of intimacy, according to which a voice is what strives to make itself known to us, which calls us to pay attention to it, summons our listening and invites us to approach its “potentially enlightening alterity” (83). While Pettman is eager to distance himself from neo-Heideggerianism, what prevents this seductive allude from repeating the logic of the withdrawal of Being when the deictic voix-là that he coins, like Agamben’s Voice-as-shifter, consists in its own vanishing act (58)?

The other point to make is one that could also be leveled at deconstruction: is dispersal and dissemination really an effective way to relinquish the transcendental? Pettman is clearly with Derrida on this point, but Catherine Malabou has made a convincing argument that Derrida’s attraction to a Genetian dissemination of aurality as a means to topple the Hegelian tower of Klang is just another attempt to avoid the economy of the transcendental without abandoning it.[10] The problem with the transcendental voice, as Pettman recognizes, is that it always presupposes another excluded voice. The category of human voice presupposes the other voice of machine and animal, but, even within the category of the human, the voice is divided into noise and speech, masculine and feminine, and so forth, always partitioning itself. In the economy of the transcendental, the voice becomes a fetish—which, in Derrida’s definition, can both be detached from a chain of voices to become the privileged one and also substitute for any other one in the chain.

One can escape the contradiction by incorporating the externalized fetish into the system (the Hegelian metaphysical solution) or, as Malabou points out, you can deflate the phallus by bringing down everything around it so that nothing stands taller than anything else (the Derridean option). Pettman, for his part, challenges the privileged position of the voice and instead indulges in the substitution of one voice for another, a gradual slippage from one chapter to the next. The issue facing deconstruction applies here too, though: how to end the infinite regress of voices? In the end Pettman seems to settle for a voice of the world that is without beginning or end and that refuses to be subordinated to any totalizing project. The world is a space in which one is always listening out for another voice. One moment one hears it, the next one doesn’t.

The form and style of Pettman’s book capture the character of this roving ear, always pricking up with the possibility of another intriguing example. Pettman is a very engaging writer, and the way he traverses contexts and theoretical horizons is thrilling. Sonic Intimacy slides from one voice into another, slipping out of one body into another, all the more easily because it wears its weighty themes very lightly. Philosophy, then, becomes less an instrument by which to prosecute an argument than a playful seduction designed to lure our ears from one idea to the next. Pettman’s writing is perhaps at its most exciting when it ignores expectations to pin down the voices of interlocutors and instead revels in throwing the voice, in making it seem as if it emanates from somewhere else. Pettman himself, whose body of writing gives the impression of an insatiable curiosity, is no doubt already chasing down other voices and other worlds. I urge readers, though, to let their ear linger a little longer over this intriguing little book that promises to help us discern voices where we least expect to hear them.

Naomi Waltham-Smith is Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Pennsylvania. Her work sits at the intersection of music, sound studies, and continental philosophy. She is author of Music and Belonging Between Revolution and Restoration published by Oxford University Press, and is currently writing a book entitled The Sound of Biopolitics.


[1]    Dominic Pettman, Creaturely Love: How Desire Makes Us More and Less Than Human (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).

[2]    Dominic Pettman, Human Error: Species-Being and Media Machines (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

[3]    Daniel Heller-Roazen, Echolalias: On the Forgetting of Language (New York: Zone, 2005).

[4]    Agamben, Language and Death: The Place of Negativity, trans. Karen E. Pinkus (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991).

[5]    Jean-Luc Nancy, The Creation of the World, Or, Globalization, trans.  François Raffoul and David Pettigrew (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2007), 42.

[6]    Jean-Luc Nancy, The Birth to Presence, trans. Brian Holmes et al., (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), 1

[7]    Dominic Pettman, Human Error, 237n71.

[8]    Nancy, The Birth to Presence, 5.

[9]    Jean-Luc Nancy, Listening, trans. Charlotte Mandell (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007), 16.

[10]   Catherine Malabou, “Philosophy in Erection,” Paragraph 39, no. 2 (2016): 238–48.