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Received Pronunciations

Notes from three spaces in which the law resounds

006 / 28 January 2014
Stenograph, screen shot.
Stenograph, screen shot.

Note 1: I enter a room with a very high ceiling. It is approximately 600 meters squared. Greek columns line the back wall behind a long raised empty bench. At either side of this bench are American flags, hanging limp in the windless interior. The room is filled with the sound of creaking mahogany furniture, what in cinema is referred to as  'rhubarb' or 'walla': the murmuring that emanates from the audience. A clerk walks in through a door on the left, armed with a gavel. He sits down and strikes the gavel onto the woodblock. The rhubarb or walla is instantly quashed. The reverb from this sonic impulse acoustically alerts me to the huge gulf that stands between what is in fact the judge's bench and myself. The clerk proceeds to vocalize the presence of 'the Honorable, the Chief Justice and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States' and then, for four seconds, he interrupts his own speech and sings out 'OYEZ OYEZ OYEZ', only to return to describing that the court is now sitting and that god is now blessing the honorable court. Then with a second strike of the gavel he sits down mute, waiting for the end of the day when he will raise his voice once more.


For the law to acquire its performative might, it must be delegated to the voice. For the law to come into effect it must be announced and it must be heard. Writing alone is inadequate to carryout the burden of legislation, which must first be committed to speech. To understand the politics invested in listening to the voice we can begin by entering the courtroom.  As a site where speech acts, the trial allows us to understand how the voice serves to activate certain forms of governance and control, and that the processes of how we are heard in turn affect the course of our lives.


In the situation described above, we see the means by which the law is vocally summoned into existence. A legal space gets endowed with the right to carry out justice only when certain announcements are made. These announcements, in combination with other oaths and speech acts, function as a juridical amplifier: the switch that turns legally inaudible speech  audible, transforming words  from the normal conditions of communication to the extraordinary conditions of testimony.


And yet, something else is also illustrated in the clerk's call. In those four seconds when his annunciation shifts from a presecribed set of spoken words to the ineffibility of nonverbal sounds ('Oyez Oyez Oyez'), we see that it is not simply language that legislates but also the extra-linguistic elements of the voice itself.


The legal action Habeas Corpus offers us some insight into the use of the voice as both a verbal and non-verbal instrument. This ancient writ, which translates to 'may you have the body,' stipulates that a person under arrest must be physically brought before a judge. The judge must see and hear the suspect live. The voice is a corporeal product that contains its own excess. This bodily excess of the voice resides not in its linguistic functions, but in its nonverbal affects, such as in its pitch, accent, glottal stops, intonations, inflections and impediments. As byproducts of the act of utterance, these affects reveal other kinds of evidence; evidence that may evade the written documentation of legal proceedings, but does not escape the ears of the judge and of those listening to a trial in the space of the courtroom.


These paralinguistic elements of testimony produce a division of the voice, which in turn establishes two witnesses within the voice: one witness speaks on behalf of language and the other witness speaks on behalf of the body. Often the testimony provided by each of these two witnesses is corroborated by the other, but they can also betray one another. An internal betrayal between language and body, between subject and object, fiction and fact, truth and lies. This betrayal exists in a single human utterance in which the self gives itself away. This splitting of the voice into two selves, or into two witnesses, can also be seen as an extension of the well-established legal principle of Testis unis, testis nullus, which translates to 'one witness, no witness', and which means that testimony provided by any one person in court is to be disregarded unless corroborated by the testimony of at least one other. The law it seems requires a certain doubling of testimony, and this doubling even extends to the single witness. In the eyes of the law, the testimony of the single witness, whether the suspect or the survivor, has to be split into language and its bodily conduit for it to be considered testimony at all.


But if all the law requires is the speaking body in order to be activated, why does it insist on the written transcript? And what then of the typist or the stenographer?


Note 2: I step into a small room, perhaps only 8 or 9 metres squared, where unique operations of listening and translation are already underway. I am in the domain of the Incorporated Phonographic Society, a society of courtroom typist enthusiasts who gather weekly to test each other's word per minute dictation speeds. There is a single orator. She holds in her left hand a stopwatch and in her right a court transcript. She reads simultaneously from both of these legible surfaces. In attendance today are three typists. Her words enter the ears of these three typists at a predetermined rate of words per minute. The typists are each using entirely different methods of shorthand to transcribe what they hear. In this small space one voice is simultaneously being processed into 3 different stenographic systems: Machine, Pitman and Teeline. The source material is a transcript from a trial. Before reaching the ears of these stenographic enthusiasts today these words had already been spoken aloud by judges and lawyers in a courtroom where they were transcribed verbatim by a stenographer into an unspecified shorthand system and then later into a legible English. What I am witnessing is the repetition of that process and the return of the document from Standard English to stenographic information. When the typists reach the end of the document, they remain silent. I take the opportunity to introduce myself. But they remain silent. Finally, breaking this awkward pause the Machine typist, Richard, starts to speak.  He excuses himself and explains that he was unable to acknowledge my presence at first because he was still in 'autopilot' mode and hadn't been able to register what I had said. 'It's a particular headspace I enter while transcribing and it's difficult to shake off. What I do is that I find an interesting architectural feature or ornament in the room, usually on the ceiling, and while I type I study it closely with my eyes. By doing this I manage to switch off the meaning of words that are being said. I become free from listening to them and somehow that opens up a subconscious connection between my ears and my fingers, allowing me to type at almost the speed of speech.'  

Incorporated Phonographic Society: a video portrait (2 minute extract) 

Courtesy of Lawrence Abu Hamdan and Galeri Non Istanbul



As a phono-centric listener, the stenographer embodies a paradox. He hears voice as pure sound, composed of units of pronunciation. He listens to syllables and phonetic fragments, but he completely blocks out meaning. His job is to produce an intelligble textual account of a trial. But in order to accurately transcribe what is being said, the courtroom typist zones out what is being conveyed. In this way, the role of the typist exercises the tension between speech as sound and speech as semantics. In order to synchronize the splitting of the legal voice back into its textual form, the typist enters automatic pilot mode and empties himself of subjectivity. In passing through the body of the typist, the nonverbal voice is flattened and filtered out, losing all its affects as it turns from spoken word into tidied up text.


While we earlier saw how the position of the judge imbues testimony with corporeal legibility, we now learn that the job of the typist effaces the body from speech. When seen in relation to each other these two very intense and radically different forms of listening provide an essential means of understanding and contrasting the ways in which the law hears our voices and the divergent processes by which it conceives, receives, transforms, organizes, excludes, reduces and records our testimony.


In the UK the practice of stenography in courtrooms is under threat. The industry is dwindling as more and more trials are being audio recorded. But the audio recording of legal proceedings is not an attempt to capture an accurate representation of the voice of the witness. Nor is it an attempt to preserve testimony in both its parts: sound and semantics. In fact, for all official legal reference purposes, these trials are still being transcribed and the audio recordings are but means by which to outsource the work of stenographers in the UK to a company based in the city of Ahmedabad in the state of Gujarat, India.


It strikes me that more than all the other forms of outsourced labour that exist in India, the offshoring of the British legal voice thousands of miles away must have some special ramifications. This privatization of the courtroom has implications on jurisdiction itself, and to understand these implications fully we must break down the concept of jurisdiction into its two parts: juris and diction. The term connotes not just speech but the territorial boundaries over which the legal authority of that speech (diction) presides. Through the transmission of the legal voice from the UK to India, the porous speech-space of British law is reconfigured. It extends itself beyond itself to engulf and occupy India once again.


India is well versed in British legal parlance. After 450 years of British colonial occupation, the Indian judiciary has evolved as a continuation of the structure that was left behind. By forcing us to re-conceptualize the space in which the law operates, this contemporary export of the British legal voice to India not only expands the notion of who we are testifying to, it also insidiously reinvigorates old colonial fault lines. But the return of British juris-diction to India is perhaps more predictable than the unexpected inverse of this equation.  Consider the fact that when these audio recordings come back to the UK as legal transcripts, British trial proceedings become an import from India. Is there some sliver of emancipatory potential in thinking about what it means to have a British trial become an Indian product? Or is the voiceless transcription being sent from Ahmedabad to the UK not invested with the same power as its audible counterpart?


After all in the law it is the voice that acts.


This new channel of vocal export multiplies the spaces in which the law acts and the people it acts upon. But how is it actually acting upon them? In the case of the call centres outsourced to Mumbai, it is clear that the law acts upon the voices of its employees through elocution classes that smoothen out the Indian-ness of the Indian accent, conditioning them for 'better intelligibility'. It is my sense that in the case of Indian legal transcription services, it is not so much the voice but the function of the ear that is being conditioned or outsourced. Fine tuning Indian hearing to the specific bandwidth of British legal operations once again. With these recordings, the British Empire returns as a sort of language-tape: a verbatim training for the new generation in the speech patterns of the British legal subject. 


Note 3: I am at home, and online, analyzing the visual identity of Transcription Services India™. It's hard to gauge anything from their branding, except notice smiling white women happily transcribing legal documents. Image analysis is not my specialty and I am about to give up when the phone rings. It's 3mobile, the cell phone company.  I immediately get attuned to my interlocutor's accent, which, along with the slight telephonic delay and echo on the line, alerts me to the fact that she is probably calling from India. With my right ear to the receiver, I begin to try to identify all the noises that constitute the sonic space of the colonial loop we are now temporarily occupying. I do this to such an extent that I have lost the thread of the conversation. It seems that now, without realizing it, I have become entrenched in some sort speech act protocol or voice activated contract system. She asks me to specifically answer with the word 'yes' to the terms and conditions she has stipulated. I of course answer, 'Yes'. This 'yes' colludes with my speaking body, or what's left of it after the heavy telephonic compression of my voice, and only then do these terms apply to me. 'Enjoy your weekend,' she says; I answer, 'Thanks, you too.'

About the author

Lawrence Abu Hamdan

In 2012 London based artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan had two solo shows featuring new commissioned work The Freedom Of Speech Itself at The Showroom, London and The Whole Truth at CASCO, Utrecht. His ongoing project Aural Contract has been recently exhibited at Arnolfini, Bristol (2013) and Tate Modern (2013). Other works include his collaboration as one member of Model Court presented at Gasworks, London (2013) and Marches for Artangel, London (2008). His hybridized practice means that he has written for Cabinet Magazine and the 10th Sharjah Biennial and is part of the group running the arts space Batroun Projects in north Lebanon. Abu Hamdan is a part of the research team for Forensic Architecture at Goldsmiths College where he is also a Phd candidate and lecturer.