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“Nowhere Space:” Sonic Materiality and Sites of Reading

In Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound, Don Ihde writes: “Sometimes there is a ‘singing’ of voice in writing. I have often been shocked at ‘hearing’ a friend’s voice on reading his or her latest article or book” (xx). For the last year or so, I’ve been investigating the role of the ear in processes of reading and writing. As a grad student, my project, broadly, has been to bring the field of sound studies into dialogue with the discourses of rhetoric and composition. In doing so, I have needed to confront slippery aural modalities—when sound itself seems to toggle between vibrating physically in the air and echoing off the page into the minds of readers. Investigating these sonic slippages has led me to see the body as implicated in writing in unexpected ways. Ihde puts it this way: when we “hear” a piece of writing, “the other shines through in an auditory adherence to what is ordinarily soundless” (xx). How is it, after all, that a written text can at times be so strongly “heard,” even during silent reading?

In the introduction to his 1990 book, Reading Voices: Literature and the Phonotext, Garrett Stewart asks, perhaps for the first time among literary theorists, where reading occurs: “what…precisely,” he wonders, “is the site of reading, and why?” (17). From here, he goes on to suggest that reading may take place not in the “brain” but in the body, or rather in a delicate and complex combination of the two. This suggestion is notable for bringing the reader’s sensorium to bear on literary interpretation, a field in which readers and texts at times seem to be disembodied. Adriana Cavarero calls this a “strategic deafness to the plural, reciprocal communication of voices” that “devocalizes” written texts and the bodies that they come from (530). More recently, Brandon LaBelle takes up Stewart’s idea of a mixed physical and mental space in Lexicon of the Mouth: Poetic and Politics of Voice and the Oral Imaginary.

Perhaps what’s most important about LaBelle’s work is the way it incorporates spatiality. Much of LaBelle’s work prior to this book focuses on installation sound art—that’s actually how I came to know him, in beginning to think about sounds as constantly and inextricably related to the spaces in which they occur. LaBelle’s preoccupation with the spatial dimensions of sound works its way into Lexicon of the Mouth, too. In developing a notion of inner voice, or “self-talk,” LaBelle suggests that when we read silently, the text sounds in an “auditorium of the inner voice” (88). “In reading,” he writes, “we follow the words and unmistakably ‘hear’ them in the back of the mind, hovering in a kind of nowhere space. Our voice sounds within, as a shadow to the words on the page—can you hear them now, while reading this sentence?” (LaBelle 88). In conjuring an “auditorium of the inner voice,” LaBelle actually maps the physical qualities of external spaces onto the analogous spaces of an internal realm. Although he calls it a “nowhere space,” this term perhaps undercuts the seriousness with which he explores the idea of an internal sounding chamber.

This mapping of external onto internal space seems rich with possibilities for further questions—for example, what happens when I try to read in a coffeeshop that’s playing classical music? Can my internal “reading room” become confounded by other sounds, or perhaps the static of distraction or anxiety? What other voices already exist inside my inner reading space, in consonance or dissonance with what I read? It is, of course, fully possible to read without evocalizing, or audiating the words on the page. Getting the sounds that a writer has put into their work may make a compelling argument for cultivating slower, more deliberate reading habits.

My mind moves next to the classroom: if acts of reading are deeply tied to acts of hearing, the implications for teaching seem abundant. Teachers might find ways to exploit aspects of the vocal apparatus that cling to processes of reading, and encourage students to develop their ears and voices as tools for learning. In a recent College English article, Steph Ceraso elaborates on a form of “multimodal listening” that she encourages her students to develop, a form of listening that implicates the entire body, not just the ears. “In addition to teaching students what sound means,” she writes, referring to the semantic “content” of words, “it is critical to teach them how sound works and affects” (Ceraso 102).[1] Going forward, it seems important to use the classroom as a space that reinvests written texts with the corporeality of the voice, and to suggest to students that perhaps no reading is ever truly silent.


  1. Ceraso, Steph. “(Re)Educating the Senses: Multimodal Listening, Bodily Learning, and the Composition of Sonic Experiences.” College English 77.2 (2014): 102-23. Print. []