Bringing Together Materialisms, Phenomenology, and Poststructuralism to Investigate Trans* Vocality

bunte Noten und Klangwellen vor schwarzem Hintergrund

Trans* Vocality: lived experience, singing bodies, and joyful politics

Holly Patch, Tomke König
To sing is an expression of your being, a being which is becoming. – Maria Callas
With critical feminist materialisms, it is possible to develop what we have already learned from poststructural gender deconstructivism while also asking what can yet be learned from bodies, experience, and materiality. ‘Voice’ is ‘material relationality’ that has not yet received enough attention despite its centrality to political pursuits. In this paper, we trace the voice and its relation to materialism, phenomenology, and poststructuralism. Framing ‘vocality’ as an embodied and lived phenomenon, we develop a theoretical lens for the purpose of investigating the enactment of agency of trans* vocality. This phenomenological, materialist approach turns to the lived experiences of transgender and nonbinary singers to ground theory on gender as well as to understand what is political about trans* vocality in singing. Using material from an ongoing research project, we seek to show how the constitution of singing subjects is political and, additionally, how through singing – a kind of ‘sensuous knowledge’ – trans* vocal expression can be a joyful resource for politicism and social change.
Voice and vocality
We are used to thinking about the concept of ‘voice’ when it comes to the theorization of subjectivities and politics, epistemological reconstructions of herstories, and language and meaning. Voice becomes more intricate, however, when we tether it back to the embodied speaker or singer interacting with other likewise embodied and situated others. In this paper, we present how materialisms and phenomenology pick up on and account for these aspects of the voice. In approaching ‘vocality’ as a phenomenon in the Baradian sense, whereby “phenomena are the ontological inseparability/entanglement of intra-acting ‘agencies’” (Barad 2007: 139, emphasis in original), vocality1 is the phenomenon that encompasses yet is irreducible to the following (non-exhaustive) intra-acting aspects of the vocal: physical, physiological, biological, representational, constructed, embodied, performative, and lived. It is “through specific intraactions that phenomena come to matter – in both senses of the word” (ibid.: 140), and our goal in this paper is to outline some of the specificities of how the phenomenon of trans* vocality comes to matter. The lived experience of voice is central to our purposes, because “[v]oice and vocality are not just metaphorical and performative, not only symbols and cultural constructs” (Fisher 2010: 89). Taking up feminist phenomenology, our aim is “to retrieve, and re-emphasize the importance of, the ‘phenomenological roots of voice,’ in pointing towards a comprehensive experiential account of the imminent [sic], living voice,” one that “explore[s] all facets and features of the phenomena and experience of voice and vocality, from the expressive to the embodied material voice” (ibid.).
Materialisms and phenomenology each offer tools for attending to the materiality of vocality. It is beyond the scope of this paper to fully tease out the points where phenomenology and materialisms diverge, but we do seek to highlight where they might complement each other in order to give a fuller account of what is actively going on in trans* vocality. Additionally, they each offer ways for thinking through what is political about the materiality of trans* vocality.
We tend to agree with Stephanie Clare that
from an agential realist perspective, politics concerns what becomes materialized, what bodies come to emerge. This understanding of politics is aligned with a form of poststructuralist politics that, rather than seeking to represent subjects, investigates the power relations that constitute the subject, displacing the question of politics from the power relations between subjects to the power relations that go into the subject’s constitution (2016: 66).
We acknowledge singing as a physical, physiological process (by and of a subject) that materializes vocal bodies. Trans* singers, then, are engaging with the power involved in determining what bodies emerge. Their vocal bodies are materializing; their embodied voices come to matter and mean something. In conceptualizing vocality as a phenomenon, we can understand trans* vocality as an example of “dynamic (re)configurings of the world” (Barad 2003: 816) through which the distinction of trans* vocality from vocality in the general sense gets drawn. There is no ontological trans* voice, but in trans* people enacting singing – and thereby determining the phenomenon of trans* vocality – the trans*ness of the singing comes to matter and trans* singers become subjects. Barad proposes that “[i]t is only through specific agential intra-actions that the boundaries and properties of ‘components’ of phenomena become determinate and that particular articulations become meaningful” (2007: 148). When it comes to singing – a human, embodied, lived experience – the specificities and properties of these vocal beings are part of this intra-activity. Given our focus on trans* and non-binary singers, as subjects constituted through singing, and choruses, where singers are coming together in a space in order to make a collective voice matter, we speak of singing trans* vocality as embodied trans* being in and of the world.
For our empirical interests, we give particular emphasis to the phenomenological take on vocal embodiment, because
[i]n addition to focusing on the way power constitutes and is reproduced by bodies, phenomenological studies emphasize the active, self-transformative, practical aspects of corporeality as it participates in relationships of power. (Coole/Frost 2010: 19)
The political is to be found not in the bodily material itself, but in its relationship to power, for us here as regards the gender order and the livability of lives. That a person sings does not automatically mean that this singing is political, but in the sense that singing is gendered and gendering – meaning, related to the gender order – and given that singing is often taken to be a joyful ‘auditory event’, and thus linked to the possibility for a livable life, it is very plausible that singing by transgender and non-binary people – their materializing as singing bodies, the intersubjective materialization of their voices – is indeed political. Furthermore, learning about trans* singers’ sense-making of their experiences of singing using feminist phenomenological methods gives insights into how the embodied, material, intersubjective phenomenon of singing relates to the entanglement of gender order and power; we can learn more about what is political, because “[t]he sense we make out of our sensible, motile, affective relations with the world, others, and ourselves is also political” (Fielding 2017: xvi).
The phenomenon of vocality cannot be reduced to the materiality involved in giving sound to voice, but neither is it possible to consider vocality without this corporeality.2 Sybille Krämer describes the way bodily materiality is involved in vocalizing – how air from the lungs flows in and
sets our vocal cords in oscillation, generating sounds through their vibrations. The voice relies on elementary motor activity of the body; there is an underlying interplay between the ‘immateriality’ of the breath, the resonating cavernous organs, and the flexible resistance of the vocal cords. (Krämer 2003: 67, translated by the authors from German).
In short, “the voice is less an object or state, but rather is motion, is processuality” (ibid., translated by the authors from German). The voice is not an object that is already there; it emerges. And without the self, the person, the body literally breathing life into and sounding this voice, this processuality cannot be properly accounted for. Failing to take the self into consideration, according to Bernhard Waldenfels, “transforms sounds into mere physical acoustic noise [Schall],” resulting in the loss of the “auditory event [Hörereignis]” (2003: 21, translated by the authors from German). Bodily and physical materiality alone cannot explain the meaning of voicing. In order to sufficiently grasp what the auditory event of singing is and means, we need to acknowledge the specificities going on, intra-acting in the phenomenon vocality, recognizing that they cannot be disentangled from every other specific agential intra-action, and also without setting one as prior to the other. Trans* vocality emerges as a distinctive kind of vocality and trans* singers as subjects, but if it were not for their particular, embodied voices materializing, there would be no phenomenon of which to speak. For us, learning more about their lived experiences of vocalizing, something only they can speak to, is part of trying to account for how voices come to matter.
By addressing the corporeality of the voice and the processual ‘doing’ and ‘being’ of singing, a phenomenological, materialist approach towards vocality offers up the chance to learn even more about gender, lifeworlds, power, agency, and transformation.
Trans* lived experience and narrative
Especially for trans* studies, we see it as important to respect and attend to lived experience, centering trans* people’s sense-making of their experiences. Henry S. Rubin’s argument for phenomenology as a method in trans* studies is that it “works to return agency to us as subjects and to return authority to our narratives. It justifies a turn to the self-reports of transsexual subjects as a place to find counterdiscursive knowledge” (1998: 271). He comments that “[trans] lives have been appropriated to demonstrate the theories of gender performativity, but only to the extent that they fail to reproduce the normative correspondence between body morphology and gender identity assumed as a matter of course by nontranssexuals” (ibid.: 276). Our approaches should not “invalidate the categories through which the subject makes sense of its own experience” (ibid.: 265). Jay Prosser claims that “while theory is grappling with various forms of gendered and sexual transitions, transsexual narratives, stories of bodies in sex transition, have not yet been substantially read” (1998: 4). Another complicating dimension of trans narratives of the body is how trans* people have needed to take up medicalized discourses in order to gain access to gender-affirming procedures, surgeries, and therapies (including voice work). As Shotwell eloquently states:
this narrative also misses many people’s felt sense of inchoate gender expression. And the ease with which these narratives emerge may mask the work it has taken to construct them as ready to hand in narrating always messy lives. Lived gender is often not so simple, nor so binary, as the current gender model claims. (2011: 139)3
Narrative, in-depth interviews focused on trans* people’s experiences of their lived, singing bodies can help fill the gap Prosser is talking about while also trying to get at the ‘work’ behind constructing narratives, finding words to represent experiences – especially those that do not yet find representation in normative gender discourses – and learning more about the felt sense of gendered being.
Interpretative phenomenological analysis “shares the view that human beings are sense-making creatures, and therefore the accounts which participants provide will reflect their attempts to make sense of their experience” (Smith et al. 2009: 3). Additionally, the “researcher is trying to make sense of the participant trying to make sense of what is happening to them” (ibid.). A phenomenological analysis, especially as regards the body and “how it comes to be one’s own,” according to Gayle Salamon, “can enrich and broaden the mostly gender normative accounts of bodily materiality” so far, including in phenomenology, and “help us understand transgendered bodies as embodying a specificity that is finally not reducible to the material” (2010: 8).4 This study and this paper on trans* vocality are not about the trans* body as material (self)evidence of transness. They are, however, about the materiality of the voice, the felt sense of it, and its meaning for trans* existence – about the embodied ways of trans* being in and of the world through singing.
Bodies – matter and discourse
Feminist phenomenology and feminist critical materialisms each seek to elaborate on the social constructivist account of the body, albeit in different ways and to make different points. From the feminist phenomenological perspective, if bodies are understood to be mediated discursively, lived bodily experiences [leibliche Erfahrungen] become limited to their discursive representations. Given that bodies always already exist within a societal and gender order, the central question then is how hegemonic knowledge of the body, norms, and discursive conventions take effect in the lived body [Leib]. The gender order is so resistant to change exactly because it is materially anchored in bodies. What remains unanswered from this perspective, and what feminist phenomenology seeks to account for, is how bodies themselves are involved in this construction (to this point, see Stoller 2010a).
It is possible to “thematize and theorize lived experience within sociopolitical, discursive, and linguistic operators, without being defined or determined by them” (Fisher 2010: 94). The body is not just passively determined from outside; instead, following Stoller, it can resist such fixation and transcend the construction (2010a: 13). In this way, it is impossible for the body to be completely objectified. Additionally, it is not only bodily impulses that ‘fit’ to our gendered bodies that are able to be felt; discontent with and discomfort within the gender order are also corporally manifested (Jäger 2014). Our lived experiences are always already richer. Fisher argues that “[p]henomenology can provide the style for an analysis which retrieves and retains the immediate, vibrant, tangible, and compelling lived experience” (2010: 94), and the feminist analysis seeks to center “the multiple aspects, particularities, and dynamics of the social and cultural world,” including the plurality and contradiction with which we live and experience our gendered being in the world (ibid.). Thereby, we can try to find out how individuals are able to express all of this which lies outside of the binary order.
The critical feminist materialisms critique of the poststructural social constructivist account is also related to frustration with the idea that matter is mediated by or is a “passive product of discursive practices” (Barad 2007: 151). The force matter itself has as an active factor in the materialization of bodies has been disregarded, they find (see Clare 2016: 66 and Coole/Frost 2010: 19). The constructivist approach has not paid “sufficient attention to the material efficacy of bodies” (Coole/Frost 2010: 19). And these authors “draw attention to a new materialist predilection for a more phenomenological approach to embodiment” (ibid.). Singing is a human embodied, material experience we would like to investigate empirically in a phenomenological, materialist way that understands voices as emergent and meanings of trans* singing as being enacted by matter, here, especially the material bodies of trans* singers (and of those listening). We want to explore the ‘material efficacy’ of trans* vocality and what it means politically that these embodied voices are materializing.
In the following, we outline the intersubjective material relationality of vocalizing and listening bodies, discuss the concept of performativity and issues of trans* vocality, and then also refer to the words of trans* singers themselves in order to articulate how singing is political in that voices materialize, come to matter.

1 The term ‘vocality’ has been used by other authors in different ways. For example, for Leslie C. Dunn and Nancy A. Jones (1994) “to move from ‘voice’ to ‘vocality,’ then, implies a shift from a concern with the phenomenological roots of voice to a conception of vocality as a cultural construct,” and they use the term “in order to stress that voices inhabit an intersubjective acoustic space” (2). Linda Fisher argues that distinguishing between ‘voice’ and ‘vocality’ to put a focus on the performative element has resulted in the loss of the “living bodily voice” (2010: 88) conceptually. Fisher’s phenomenological take on voice and vocality does not “dispute that the voice, like the body generally, is culturally, discursively, and politically mediated and produced”, but she “want[s] to emphasize the material irreducibility of lived embodiment, the phenomenal, carnal materiality and physicality that
is experienced immanently and viscerally” (88). Vocality, in our use, like Fisher, picks up on the processual while not dismissing corporeality. Alexandros N. Constansis (2013) introduces the terms “transvocality,” “cisgender vocality,” “hybrid vocality,” and “non-binarian vocality” in his musicological case study on the Female-toMale (FTM) singing voice. Drawing from gender and queer theory, in a footnote he explicates that “unlike other musicological definitions, the terms ‘hybrid vocality’ and ‘hybrid vocal personae’ tend to focus on the effects of non-binarian, i. e., non-strictly ‘male’ or ‘female’, endocrinological and gender formation in singing vocality” (Constansis 2013: 22).
2 Fisher reminds us that “[f]rom a phenomenological point of view, the material is what is always already there, perhaps concealed or forgotten, but always present and dynamic” (2010: 94).
3 The term ‘felt sense’ was first introduced by Eugene Gendlin to describe “the layer of the unconscious that is likely to come up next. This is at first sensed somatically, not yet known or opened, not yet in the ‘preconscious’ ” in Gendlin (1996:19). Jäger and König (2017) draw upon Gendlin’s concept of felt sense in designing experiential interviews for gender research. Observing at this level offers up the chance to bring into view contradictions, breaks and changes within the gender order, to discover something new.
4 “The body is, instead, ‘a nexus of living meanings,’ gaining these meanings through proprioception, the primary but unlocatable ‘felt sense’ that allows a body to be experienced as a coherent whole rather than a collection of disparate parts. The implications of these ideas for thinking transgenderism are quite promising, and several trans writers have described this disarticulation between felt and observed gender in language that is deeply resonant with phenomenological accounts of embodiment” (Salamon 2010: 4). In his book “Phenomenal Gender: What Transgender Experience Discloses,” Ephraim Das Janssen makes the case that “a Heideggerian, applied phenomenological account of gender focuses attention where it is needed: lived experience […] to get at the heart of what gender is for all by examining those for whom gender just does not work out according to expectations” (2017: 5, emphasis in original).

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