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Speaking Subject, Virtual Subject

by Ethan Tussey

by Soumitra Ghosh for IN MEDIA RES

Alvin Lucier’s 1969 audio-work, "I am sitting in a room," ( demonstrates—through aural mise-en-abyme—that, when the subject announces its being through speech, such (re)mediated articulation foregrounds the subject’s fundamental virtuality, rather than its actuality. Lucier’s analog masterpiece, which features the artist playing back and re-recording several times a recording of him narrating a meta-text, anticipates the era of digital virtualities, avatars and immersive media which we inhabit now.

If virtual is that which surrounds the actual like a cloud, perpetually emanating from and being absorbed by the actual—as Deleuze describes it—then Lucier’s work is indeed a masterpiece of Deluzian virtuality. But Lucier’s work doesn’t stop there—it challenges us to think about what remains when the virtual and the actual become increasingly less distinct. For Lucier, this remainder—that is, the echo that reverberates once the audible passes into inaudibility—is the substance of subjectivity. Lucier’s subject is, at once, entirely virtual and utterly material.

Gradual destitution of subjectivity is central to "I am sitting in a room." Lucier—his speech rendered hesitant by stammering—reads the following passage, which eventually becomes incomprehensible noise: "I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice and I am going to play it back into the room again and again until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed. What you will hear, then, are the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech. I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have" (emphasis mine).

This is more than a meta-text about analog audio recording. This is a subject virtualizing itself in the shape of a defiant address to the domain of language and audition that lies beyond the particular scope of subjectivity. The virtual subject speaks loudly in a voice that is incomprehensible in its unrelenting particularity. The spirit, here, is a bone that crumbles like chalk—but in this very room, with this very rhythm of this speaking voice. Something remains.


I Am Sitting in a Room

Alvin Lucier's "I Am Sitting in a Room"

from I Am Sitting in a Room (1969)
Creator: Alvin Lucier
Distributor: YouTube
Posted by Ethan Tussey