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Review of  Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism

Reviewer: Fred Cummins
Book Title: Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism
Book Author: Steven Connor
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Phonetics
Issue Number: 12.1799

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Date: Thu, 12 Jul 2001 10:02:50 +0100
From: Fred Cummins <[email protected]>
Subject: Review: Connor, Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism

Connor, Steven (2000) Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism.
Oxford University Press, paperback ISBN: 0-19-818433-6, vii+449pp,

First announced on Linguist List:

Reviewed by Fred Cummins, Department of Computer Science, University
College Dublin, Ireland

Ventriloquism today belongs on stage, and may appear to be an eddy in
the cultural mainstream, and so it comes as something of a surprise to
see Connor's accomplishment in producing a weighty, rich and eclectic
account of ventriloquial phenomena ranging from the power of the
Delphic Oracle, through demonic possession, to the peculiar
relationship between modern technologies and the voice. The
importance of the subject matter is captured in Aristotle's
observation that "nothing that is without soul utters voice." Command
of voice, and the ability to conjure up voices where no body exists is
thus a formidable power which has excited the imagination with a
variety of consequences. Laid out in 7 sections, spanning some 18
chapters, the book divides roughly in half; the first three sections
treat of an older understanding of Ventriloquism, which has nothing
whatsoever to do with performance and little with willful deception.
Rather, the production of voices. often conceived of as issuing from
the stomach (the 'engastrimyth') or the genitals (the "subject"
usually being a woman), has been associated with prophecy, possession
and divine inspiration. Section 4 acts as a pivot in which the age of
enlightenment brings about a different understanding of the
Ventriloquist as one who commands voice and space. Indeed, the phrase
"throwing ones voice", still current, reflects this now outdated
understanding of the art. The final three sections treat then of
modern ventriloquism, as it has existed since the beginning of the
19th Century. The relationship between technology and the voice is
studied and the peculiar exploitation of voice and communication
technology in spiritualism leads finally to a consideration of
animation and voice.

Section I: What I Say Goes

This section, a single chapter, is a breathless celebration of the
power of voice. Effusive and enthusiastic, it introduces themes which
appear at first far too grandiose for this reviewer's initial
appraisal of the subject matter: the voice as an embodiment of self,
its role in the social construction of a spatial reality, its relation
to ecstasy and rapture, and to the development of the psyche. Connor
considers the universal sensation of discomfort on first hearing one's
own recorded voice. The effect is to create tension by the lack of
control over a familiar sound which is otherwise strictly under one's
control and subject to an affective monitor. Connor reminds us
that the natural power of the voice to animate, and so we hear
something which both is and is not self. Connor will ultimately do
justice to these themes, as the book progresses, but the casual reader
might not make it through this first chapter, which seems to draw on
an unlimited range of sources, from literary criticism,
psychoanalysis, fringe psychology and theater.

Section II: Oracles

Reaching back to the tale of the Delphic Oracle, Connor examines not
so much the appearance and story of the Oracle as it may have seemed
to the Greeks, but rather the myth of the Oracle which grew with
embellishments through Roman times, the Middle Ages and up to
Victorian times. Three themes associated with Oracular prophesy are
identified: earth, breath and frenzy. In laying out each, Connor
reaches far and wide, and indulges in some rather heavy handed
psychoanalytical interpretation (the oracular cleft as genital
opening, the issuing of voice as somehow parallel to giving birth,
etc). Tracing the development of the oracular myth, two Roman
interpretations are recounted: Virgil and Lucan. The former seeking
to accommodate the dangerous act of prophecy in an account of the rise
of Rome, the latter, writing a Century later and after the collapse of
the belief in the solid foundation of the Roman Republic. Lucan's
account of prophecy, firstly of the Delphic oracle, and then the
ghastly portents given by the witch Erichtho, is also the death of
prophesy. In Virgil's account, violent frenzy eventually unleashes a
voice which sees all time and which unifies past present and future.
Lucan's voices are cataclysmic, and deny any such edifying
function. The disembodied voice(s) of prophecy are now firmly in the
realm of the demonic and malevolent.

Later, primarily Christian, attempts to discredit the oracle and its
prophecies, sought to locate the origin of the voice in the belly or
womb of the female pythia, and the voice was claimed to issue from the
genitals. Thus a heady combination of drug induced frenzy, carnality
and disembodied and demonic voice was concocted which surely helped to
preserve the myth of the Delphic Oracle.

Another infamous vocal manifestation is tackled in the following
chapter, the Witch of Endor (from 1 Samuel 28). In this passage, Saul
visits a witch who appears to conjure up Samuel, who then delivers a
prophecy. Problems arise in the apparent ability of a witch to recall
a soul, and one of a great prophet at that. Two interpreters of this
passage, Origen and Eustathius, are considered. Writing about a
hundred years apart (3rd and 4th Century AD), they critically disagree
on the status of the voice reported in the passage. The question of
whether the witch has indulged in a little ventriloquism seems to seed
an argument in which no smaller matter than the literal truth of the
scriptures hangs. Indeed, the critical identification of the source
of a voice is central to understanding many facets of demonic
possession, prophetic utterance, speaking in tongues, divine rapture,
and sundry other loosely associated phenomena.

A later more extreme interpretation of the passage by Muggleton (1669)
serves to introduce an important theme in the history of
ventriloquism. Denying the reality of the spirits conjured by the
witch, Muggleton goes so far as to suggest that the belief in demons
itself is a demonic evil. As Connor puts it: "...the power to hoax
people into believing in the power of demons, along with people's
capacity to delude themselves into this belief, are themselves
essentially demonic".

Section III: Possessions

In this section, Connor carefully traces the evolution of the
phenomena of possession and the role of the voice therein. He begins
with cases of Medieval ecstatic dissent (ecstasy, rapture) and
revelation such as Joan of Arc, Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of
Norwich. Some of these were accepted by the church, many others
notoriously were vilified. In these cases, voices are immediately
perceived, in unadulterated fashion. The directly perceived voice
played a large role in the mystical experience, which was seen as
essentially private and independent of interpretation.

This contrasts with the increasingly public spectacle of demonic
possession and the associated rites of exorcism. The 16th Century
reinterpreted divine inspiration as possession. Cases of possession
build, one on the other, establishing a series of precedents which lay
out roles and procedures, gradually becoming more complex,
multi-personed and dialectical. There is also a sharp divide between
Catholic approaches to possession, as enacted primarily in France, and
Protestant approaches of England, which try their utmost to avoid
"dialoguizing with the devil".

The voice is central to cases of possession. Speech serves to
identify the possessor as a spiritual entity. It can also be used to
fight it, as tricking the demon into naming itself was one strategy
employed in Catholic exorcisms.

The case of John Darrell, ca. 1600, is considered at some length.
Darrell was a devout protestant who somewhat unwillingly acquired a
reputation as an exorcist, though his preferred method of ridding the
possessed of their demons was to prescribe fasting and prayer and to
leave them to their fate. Nonetheless, his apparent success made him
some powerful enemies, and he found himself imprisoned. From his
cell, he conducted a long and vigorous pamphlet war with the state
prosecutor, Harsnett. The debate centered around who was speaking in
cases of possession. Darrell argued for multiple beings inside one
frame evidenced by multiple voices; voice was cast as being
inseparable from being. Harsnett argued for ventriloquism, which
would constitute trickery, and thus undoubtedly be the work of the
devil. The substance of the debate centered on the authority and
provenance to be ascribed to human and inhuman voices.

Two further case studies are presented in which Harsnett was involved:
the first, one Mary Glover, could well have served as a model for the
novel and film "The Exorcist". The second case, one "Sara", serves to
illustrate the somewhat unwholesome interest taken by catholic
exorcists and their protestant critics alike in speech produced from
the abdomen, womb or genitals.

Section IV: Prodigies

The 18th Century, and the Enlightenment, brought a change in attitude
toward Ventriloquism. The debate on the nature of miracles was an
important transition point in the development of secular society.
The enlightenment brought demystification and the development of
encyclopedic knowledge, but also a curious attraction to the aberrant
in the quest for rational explanation.

A pivotal case is that of Denis Diderot, editor of "Encyclop�die, ou
dictionnaire raisonn� des sciences, des arts et des m�tiers" from 1758
on. As well as attempting to demystify classic cases such as the
Delphic Oracle and the Witch of Endor, the various entries connected
with ventriloquism suggest various unlikely and at times highly
fantastic explanations for aberrant vocal phenomena.

Diderot features large, however, for a more infamous work, "Les Bijoux
indiscrets", an allegorical work of satire in which a bored Sultan
acquires the power to force women to speak truly, but the voice with
which they do so issues from their genitals. This artifice still
casts the ventriloquial voice in the same light as the voices of
demonic possession, in which the victim was usually a woman, and the
voice or voices spoke through her, but at no point did they speak to
her. The comic effect, however, bespeaks a more modern appreciation
of the significance of the disembodied voice.

The will to demystify gave rise to some surprising cases of
over-explanation, in which the attempt at debunking led to an
inadvertent imbuing of the act with a kind of magic. A nominally
skeptical account of ventriloquism published in 1772 by Abb� La
Chapelle tried to identify two types of ventriloquism: speaking from
the belly (the engastrimyth, as in cases of possession) and the
"throwing" of the voice. The latter, the Abb� claims, was not
suspected by the ancients, and is largely responsible for the belief
in magical or spiritual origins of the ventriloquial voices. However,
the powers which the Abb� is happy to ascribe to the practicing
ventriloquist suggest a strong will to be deceived, an active
participation in the fantasy of the power of the ventriloquist over
space. A similar portrait of the ventriloquial art is provided in two
early American novels by Charles Brockden Brown.

Section V: Polyphonics

This section charts the 19th Century rise of the stage ventriloquist.
The early masters of the art are Charles Matthews, Alexandre Vattemare
and William Edward Love. We are presented with descriptions of their
acts, which were a combination of ventriloquism, mimicry and
quick-change acting. The stock dummy had not yet become a staple,
though Vattemare did occasionally use a dummy, complete with the box
to which he is reluctantly consigned. Although much of the success of
these performances undoubtedly lay in the well-prepared expectations
of the audiences, we see for the first time acknowledgment by one
Dugald Steware in the Edinburgh Journal of Science that the feats of
the Ventriloquist rely on psychology and on manipulating expectation
rather than on any physiological peculiarity of the performer.

Section VI: Prosthetics

>From about 1830, ventriloquist acts are commonly combined with
automata, themselves now a theatrical staple. As with ventriloquism,
talking automata hover precariously between boast and hoax. The power
of the speaking automaton to move testifies to the magical power of
the voice to bring into being. The earliest attempts at developing a
phonetics which would allow speech synthesis are here laid out, from
Bells' visible speech to Professor Faber's grotesque artificial vocal

The coincident development of the telephone and the phonograph (in
1876 and 1877, respectively) provided a prosthetic vocal tract and
hearing device. In parallel with the technological developments, the
new movement of spiritualism gave forth a series of techniques for
communicating with the "other side", from unstructured tapping,
through Morse code, to "direct voice"...speech in which the medium's
own vocal tract was not actively engaged. The increasing
communicative abilities of the spirits was perfectly matched with a
concomitant availability of devices such as the microphone,
phonograph, megaphone, radio, etc.

Section VII: No Time Like The Present

Finally, the 19th Century sees the development of the modern
ventriloquist act, complete with dummy (usually a recalcitrant
adolescent boy), in which the eye partakes as much as the ear. The
anomaly of successful ventriloquist radio shows of the 40s and 50s
probably depended on their dummies being sufficiently well known as to
be immediately visualizable by listeners.

A recurring theme is the struggle between performer and dummy,
typically resulting in the dummy being shut up in a case or box.
Violence is never far from the scene. Several novels and films have
worked the "Dummy from Hell" theme, notably the Child's Play horror
series. This stock act cannot but appear as an anachronism.

There is much in this book, much more than the subject matter
suggests. Connor has pulled together an enormous amount of material
in the service of a compelling story. His own conviction of the
centrality of voice to human experience causes him to be reckless at
times in concluding that the voice plays a major role. Likewise, his
frequent invocation of psychoanalytical metaphors to underscore the
all-pervasiveness of voice in the world is at times implausible and
labored. But the wealth of material and the careful exegesis carry
the reader confidently on.

Some material is missing too. As a phonetician, I was a little
disappointed in the absence of any detailed discussion of the
mechanics of latter day ventriloquism. Also absent was a discussion
of the embedding of speech recognition and synthesis in modern
computer applications and appliances, and the odd but unmistakable
discomfort most users find in using such applications. Quibbles
aside, here is a genuinely unusual and rich source for the curious.


Muggleton, Lodowick: "A True Interpretation of the Witch of Endor",
(London: no publisher, 1669).

Fred Cummins is an experimental phonetician and cognitive scientist
with an unhealthy interest in prosody, and especially speech timing.
Regrettably, he has no ventriloquial ability.