Michel Chion starts his book The Voice in Cinema by asking what is left, if we eliminate everything that is not the voice itself; in this short text we will have a look at this strange object – or more precisely what is left without it. (1) The theorization about the voice in cinema is fruitful also outside of film theory, Chion writes about the voice as “[…] this other us that is the voice of another”. (2) The voice is something utterly personal and yet at the same time a strange flowing energy, very hard to pin down and tie to its emitter. Chion focuses on the uncanny phenomena of the voice “[…] wandering along the surface [of the cinematic image], at once inside and outside, seeking a place to settle”. (3) This acousmatic presence of a voice which has yet to be connected to a face, he calls the acousmêtre. (4) However, he also writes about the process of de-acousmatization: when the voice of power loses its omniscience and ubiquity by being embodied by a subject; when the owner of the voice is introduced (in the frame, as it were) and the voice loses the quality of the acousmêtre . (5) Chion’s theory is truly fascinating and encompasses much more than this, but here I will focus on the politicization of voices in one media text of the YouTube channel Bad Lip Reading.

In mapping out the history of the emergence of sound in cinema Chion notes how accustomed we have grown to connecting images and sound even though the gap in between the two is as big as ever. (6) With today’s mash-ups and collages of media fragments totally overflowing the online communities, one is tempted to ask if we are witnessing a kind of aesthetic divorce between image and sound, a sort of (un)consious reflexivity regarding different media flows and their channels (image-sound-hybridity), and the more or less forced nature of their co-existence? The interest in the gap between sound and image is not new, but a proliferation of media texts experimenting in this no man’s land is undoubtedly something that has followed out of the ever developing “Web 2.0”. The user generated content on sites such as YouTube offers an abundance of cultural texts torn apart and rearranged; are these examples of counter-cultural critique or just expressions of playfulness? Before discussing this further, lets leave the content for a while and have a quick look at the structure of YouTube itself.

YouTube continually works on new ways to attract advertisers to their vast media archive, a problem has been the lack of control over the user generated content; the advertisers have not been able to determine the context within which their ads are to be shown and this has led to a highly sceptical stance, hindering big advertising investments on the social video arena. (7) Nevertheless this same network of immaterial user generated content is what gives YouTube its commercial appeal. The users’ diverse work creates an abundance of different frameworks; zones created by the associative pattern prevalent in the site’s structure. These highly specific zones are visited by specific groups of people – that is, potential consumers – whom easily gets targeted by tailored ad-campaigns. (8)

Fig A.Lehrer-Butterfly

Regarding content – irrespective of it being counter-cultural or playful – I have a beautiful example of the auditory experimentality that manifest itself on YouTube; this media text is from the Bad Lip Reading channel which produces humorously overdubbed, lipsynched videos of famous music videos and political debates; in the clip “Eye Of The Sparrow” — A Bad Lip Reading of the First 2012 Presidential Debate we get to experience the spectacle of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney talking utter nonsense, moderated by a whimsical Jim Lehrer trying to catch a butterfly. (9) This highly refined production robs these three men of their voices and installs a strange, impossible substitute in their place. What happens when the nonsensical dubbing dominates the auditory field? What is left? Well, while our ears are being filled with a stream of rantings from somewhere beyond the actual footage, we get to focus on the field of the visual; the isolated body, not the body endowed with the full symbolic authority of a president but a castrated rendition; the nullity of man exposed, the gap between symbolic power and its pathetic human occupant laid bare in front of us.

Fig C.Romney-Obama

Obviously satire is not anything new, however, one might ask if the proliferation of clips like Eye Of The Sparrow on sites like YouTube will, via their sheer digital omnipresence, exert any delegitimizing effect on power? Probably not, but I like to think that the never ending cycles of irony and detachment, in one way or another, help to empty the signs of unimpeachable power. This mechanism  of detachment in itself is not a YouTube phenomenon, however the speed of irony is faster and more far reaching than before. (To be realistic though, one might argue that this ironic detachment in itself still serves ideology; in the very act of poking fun at the authoritative, political context of a presidential debate are we not just reiterating the valuations framing these events as facts?)

Chion argues that “[…] [dubbing] functions not so much to guarantee truth, but rather to authorize belief”. (10) The synchronization of words and lip movements work as a kind of certification that what is shown is real. (11) As long as this certificate remains intact, we play along and accept the dubbed source of the voice as that of the on-screen actor; but what we really get is the voice’s denial of the body. (12) This impossibility of the fusion of body and voice (in dubbing) ends up in the impossible speaking body. (13)

Fig B.Obama-Lehrer-Romney

Here we certainly do not believe that the voice’s source is that of the lips of the participant in the debate, even though they are perfectly synchronous. We end up with a very strange voice; tightly pressed against the lips of power but still autonomous – speaking as if grounded in the visible political spectacle – but rather authorizing disbelief. In this case, “the Big Boss” of the acousmêtre does not get brought down to the level of subjects (de-acousmatization), and providing no certificate of realness, the voice-object manages – through its arbitrary synchronicity – to symbolically castrate the representations of power; Barack Obama and Mitt Romney here exposed in their nullity, as impossible puppets of the overdubbing acousmêtre of symbolic power.

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  1. Michel Chion, The Voice In Cinema, trans., Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 1.
  2. Ibid., 6.
  3. Ibid., 23.
  4. Ibid., 21.
  5. Ibid., 27f.
  6. Ibid., 11.
  7. Mark Andrejevic, ”Exploiting YouTube: Contradictions of User-Generated Labor”, The YouTube Reader, red. Pelle Snickars and Patrick Vonderau (Stockholm/London: National Library of Sweden & Wallflower Press, 2009), 413.
  8. Ibid., 417.
  9. Web page: YouTube, “’Eye Of The Sparrow’ — A Bad Lip Reading of the First 2012 Presidential Debate”, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QlwilbVYvUg (accessed June 24th, 2013).
  10. Chion., 127.
  11. Ibid., 128f.
  12. Ibid., 129.
  13. Ibid., 160.