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Into the voice box

by Dimitris Papadopoulos
14 May 2007 • Comment (1) • Print
Posted: Race/Matter [2] | Commons

I have this fantasy in the middle of today’s excessive biophilic natureculture: I invent the bio-scissors. With the bio-scissors you can remodel parts of your body without damaging them. DIY beauty: The results are instant, the healing process is immediate and completely painless (as you can imagine this will revolutionise beauty treatments and I promise all revenues will go to darkmatter).

Anyway, I won’t use my bio-scissors to treat my belly, my fantasy is to reshape my voice box. This will spare me of some unpleasant social interactions, here the two most recent: making a standard call to one of the main national research funding bodies to clarify things about my standard grant and getting the answer that only British academics are eligible for the scheme before the operator quickly hangs up; having to answer the questions what is my phd topic and how long I’m going to stay in the UK many many times during the lovely small talk with colleagues after a trendy lecture in one of the capital’s universities. Well, all this are mere bagatelles against the everyday racism of British society. And anyway, by being a kind of middle class academic I know that I can do the individualistic DIY thing because I can afford to use the bio-scissors (no need to stand in massive queues in the early hours to get my No 7 Protect & Perfect).

But there is much more to the cultural politics of voice and accent. If you think together Fanon’s epidermalisation, Althusser’s interpellation and the materiality of the larynx you get something which is called the ‘new migrant’. ‘Old migrants’ speak proper English and detonate bombs in our trains and buses. How can they dare to bomb us when they speak English as their mother tongue? ‘New migrants’ speak dodgy English and undermine national sovereignty and the last remaining bits of the crumbling welfare system. How can they dare to demand regularisation without speaking the language? Language as persecution. Language as a symptom of British neurosis.

What I’m interested in is how the materiality of the voice box sustains the trajectories of racialisation on the one hand and criminalisation of mobility on the other. The materiality of the voice box acts as the point of gravity of British doubled-sided racism against the ‘non-integrated’ on the one hand and the ‘illegal’ on the other. We are used to respond to this by engaging separately in the politics of race and the politics of migration. But this distinction is no longer sustainable. Voice, racialisation, accents, detention centres, precarious labour, racial oppression, deportations are all made of the same stuff of matter: bodies which do not match. In the age of bio-scissors (well nearly there) DIY is not enough. It is impossible to think race and migration independent of each other. Do it without yourself! DIWY!


Dimitris Papadopoulos teaches social science and social theory at the School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University.
All posts by: Dimitris Papadopoulos | Email | Website

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One Response »

  1. You’re completely correct about the racialization of the materiality of the voice Dimitris
    What interests me (as a geographer I guess) is that your post combines three scales usually kept safely apart in academic analysis – first, the snottiness about accent on the British Isles, which I suppose is shared with the French, but in Britain there’s the historical hypersensitivity induced by class – second, the amount of melanin in your skin – this is Fanon indeed – and thirdly the sub-corporeal (smaller than an individual) scale of the larynx – and its connection to the language centers of the brain of course. Racialization is not done TO bodies, but bodies do it themselves, in interaction of course with the visual and linguistic regimes they find themselves in…

    I even think language in the UK sometimes overrides race, in a way, especially after “Asian cool”… I guess I look “South Asian”, though I’m Belgian and my accent wavers between Flemish/Dutch-ish and generic South-Indian-ish, and in the UK I’ve always felt I’d be treated different if I’d speak with, say, a Brummie accent – not that there’d be no racism any more, but you’re more securely categorizes as “British-South-Asian” that way – less of a category fuck. In other words, traditional white British English is the standard and nonwhites, to be accepted, need to comply (call centre Indians having to change their name…).

    Another scale to include: the entire HEAD.

    Wouldn’t it be great if second generation South Asians in the UK reintroduce, under the name of Asian cool, the famous practice of shaking/tilting the head for “yes… sort of” that their parents have had to gradually unlearn? Perhaps the increasing popularity of Bollywood can facilitate this.


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