Dangerous Transmissions: On Language, Agency and Voice(lessness)

Jinan Coulter

Read Jinan Coulter’s newly commissioned essay produced in response to our latest #FVUWatch feature Aphonia (2024) by Sophie Hoyle. Jinan takes the nuance of speech as a starting point to question broader themes of language and agency explored within the work.

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,

     When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore, –

When he beats his bars and he would be free;

It is not a carol of joy or glee,

     But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,  

But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –

I know why the caged bird sings!


–– Paul Laurence Dunbar, excerpt from Sympathy (1899)



The limits of my language means the limits of my world.1


— Ludwig Wittgenstein


Many of us casually take for granted a second-nature ability to speak – the verbal fluency that moors us to the communal world. But what is it to ‘speak’, exactly; to utter strange sounds that string together in intelligible form? How does the capacity to become intelligible distinctly index our humanness? How is speaking (or not speaking) an act of agency? And when, conversely, is it a consequence of agency denied? There are many ways to ‘speak’, of course, both literally and figuratively. Speech is inextricably bound up with language and language is intimately bound up with multitudinous modes of (human) being.



“The collective body,

not a single tongue”2


Born to two former slaves on June 27, 1872, Paul Laurence Dunbar was one of the first African American poets to gain international acclaim, following emancipation. Against all odds in a society still rife with racism, he contributed a prolific body of work to American literature.

In his short but distinguished life, it would seem that Dunbar found a refuge in language; perhaps a means through which to fiercely counter a social and (bio)political order that sought to diminish and extinguish black personhood, (often literally) at every turn. Much like the singing bird in his poem Sympathy, it was as if his words hammered against the cage of subjugation and dehumanisation put upon him.

It is easy to imagine that for the son of former slaves, language and writing were particularly emancipatory – both for expressing his many talents and personhood, but also collectively in giving voice and dignity to the black experience3 (and his own experience, in turn).

Language and our voices are vectors for the articulation of identity, belonging, membership, knowledge, thoughts, feelings, opinions, beliefs, allegiances, objections, stances, testimonies and more; the things that define our uniqueness as individuals, as well as our place in the social world4. Language in all its forms is a marker of human existence and helps to constitute that existence, in and of itself. The act of speaking (and writing) is a fundamental part of the process of ‘self’-making – in other words, of our embodiment.

Language identifies us to others. It is performative and relational. It shapes how we (re)present ourselves, individually and as groups, through culturally specific phrases, slang and coded jargon, for instance, but also through the expression of shared lived experiences, trajectories and histories. Indigenous communities are often in an existential struggle to protect and preserve their languages against erasure, which subsequently preserves their identities as distinct peoples5.

Yet we do not always have sole authority over the instrument of our speech or the currency of our words.

Dunbar wrote much of his rich repertoire of poems, novels, essays and plays in standard English, but also in African American vernacular and dialect, which he loved and for which he became most recognised. He disliked, however, the disproportionate praise given to his writing in ‘black dialect’, while much of his other writing went overlooked. Among some circles, Dunbar was criticised for his language choices. He seemed to be in a bind, whichever register he chose: his use of standard English elicited suspicions that he was betraying his African American roots, and his dialect writing led some to see him as complicit in white stereotypes and racist representations.6

Dunbar wanted all his work to be recognised beyond the narrow confines of identity preconceptions. Yet his choice of language was ascribed meaning relative to the context in which it was interpreted, indicative of both the sociality of language and the broader political dynamics and power relations in which words and speech are inevitably bound up.

Language and speech are always partly contingent on external dynamics and power equations. At its most extreme, there can be outright coercive factors at work, such as being forced to speak (as with confessions extracted under torture, or an imposed regimen of speech therapy), or forcibly silenced (as with censorship). And not all speech is deemed equal or worthy of hearing to begin with. A frequent critique of the mainstream press is that it rarely, if ever, ‘speaks’ for certain groups or subjects, nor does it give them a platform through which to be heard; these voices remain marginalised, silenced or entirely ignored by structures of power that seek to maintain certain narratives to the exclusion of others – and that seek to monopolise the very right to narrate.

We also don’t have sole authority over our language because of the nature of language itself. Language, words and speech don’t merely exteriorise or move outwardly in one direction. They are inherently relational, to be received by an audience, community, listener or reader and then (re)interpreted and responded to. The words we use and the manner or language in which we speak are all ascribed meaning by others, whatever our intended meaning. Subsequently, we are ascribed meaning (as was Dunbar’s experience) that we do not always feel is true to who or what we are. One can be caught in one’s language and (mis)represented by it. We do not have full control over our words and their outcomes.

One’s language and words are never entirely one’s own.



“Speech can be resistance,

but silence can be refusal”7


What is that compels us to speak?

To fall silent?

To participate?

To withdraw?

Sometimes we are sovereign in navigating these choices. At other times one or the other is forced upon us by circumstances such as illness, disability, coercion, trauma.

Long after Dunbar’s untimely passing, renowned African American writer, poet, memoirist and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou, chose a now famous line from his poem Sympathy to serve as the title of her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). The autobiographical book chronicles her own childhood and coming-of-age in a deeply racist and segregated town in 1930s Arkansas and tells the story of a traumatic childhood in which Angelou was raped at the age of eight by her mother’s boyfriend. As a result, she went mute for five years.

Angelou’s mutism was, in part, a self-described dissociative8 state in response to a harrowing violation that she only barely survived. Yet she also described it as an almost deliberate refusal. After the perpetrator was arrested, convicted and released, he was found murdered shortly after. This event left her to believe she was responsible for his death because she had named him. For a long time, she believed her words, her testimony, had the literal power to kill. Angelou explained: "I thought if I spoke, my mouth would just issue out something that would kill people, randomly, so it was better not to talk."9

Philosopher J. L. Austin coined the term ‘speech act’10, arguing that words are deeds, and that speech does things in the world. Speech is not always simply an expression of the subjective self; of passive feelings and thoughts but has active consequences in our shared social reality. Utterances have a communicative force11. They can identify, name, label, categorise, testify, accuse, resist and bear witness, for instance; words are part of the field of relational action, and whether vocalised or written, they possess tremendous power.

Words and speech are also instruments of our own self-embodiment, or that which contributes to making us ‘visible’; avenues through which we conspicuously take up space in the world. If trauma is a violence inflicted on our bodies (our literal, physical bodies and, figuratively, the bodies of our minds and personhood), then, in some instances, silencing the instrument that contributes to that embodiment makes sense for our survival.

It is often said that trauma, whether major or minor, can motivate us to ‘get small’, which is often accompanied by going quiet. This retracting from the world – the physical or relational world – can have real protective benefits for a time. Silence can be a refusal to expose oneself, to put oneself ‘out there’ in a way that feels or is self-imperiling (or imperiling to others). A receding from threats. A refuge, a salvation, a defense. It can be a reclamation of our power; a taking back control in the aftermath of powerlessness (contrary to how it may be perceived).

Falling silent does not always mean that one has nothing to say. One can be full in their silence.

Angelou later came out of her muteness with the help of a teacher who encouraged her love of poetry and its recital. She said of her reemergence: “When I decided to speak, I had a lot to say. And many ways in which to say what I had to say. So out of this evil, which was a dire kind of evil, because rape on the body of a young person more often than not introduces cynicism, and there is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing. In my case I was saved in that muteness. And I was able to draw from human thought, human disappointments and triumphs, enough to triumph myself."12


“To adapt, to flatten, to restrict”13


Silence can be a temporary or permanent consequence of trauma, but the trauma of violence can also be deliberately mobilised as a weapon to silence. When speaking and other forms of language are deemed threatening by authoritarian regimes or colonial powers, for instance, the move to extinguish such voices becomes a dystopian reality. Censorship is an obvious form of silencing. If one does not adapt to the dominant order, one ‘must’ be silenced, or so the logic goes.

A typical expression of fascism is book burning (destroying knowledge, culture, history, collective memory and alternative thought as preserved through words and text); the restricting of language and narratives to a narrow field of what is sanctioned, eliminating all (‘other’) language or words deemed ‘dangerous’; words that inspire alternative ways of thinking, feeling and being; words that testify to the very existence of difference in the first place.

At its most extreme, the weapon of coercive silencing can mean the wholesale elimination, not just of people’s voices and their capacity to speak or be heard, but of physical existence itself.

Fascism is most recognised by systematic mass disappearances and mass killing; the vanishing and extinguishing of people as subjects – vocal subjects with distinct and diverse voices, precisely. Writers, poets, journalists and dissidents are all familiar targets (something we see evident in the genocide unfolding in Gaza today); the silencing of people who mobilise words to speak truth to power, to bear witness and to counter hegemonic forces, narratives and ideologies.

This ultimate and final ‘silencing’ by state actors and power structures is often intended to eliminate diversity in a society for a variety of ends; to eradicate divergence and voices and subjects that are deemed inconvenient, intolerable or simply in the way. These subjects are often reduced to what philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls ‘bare life’14, when human beings are placed in a state of exception where torture, extreme violence and elimination are made permissible; in spaces that exist outside of the rule of law.

Bare life also refers to “a conception of life in which the sheer biological fact of life is given priority over the way a life is lived.”15 It is a condition of being stripped; without rights, agency, speech or political freedom16; where an authority or power has complete control over the lives and bodies of dehumanised ‘others’ – bodies reduced to bare biological functioning and surviving and ultimately primed for muting in the most final of ways.



“The force on the tongue feels a bit like you’re choking.”17


What does it mean to be reduced to the organismic? To the body as mere biology? What does it mean when this is forced upon you under the guise of ‘help’ or ‘treatment’, as opposed to under the ominous state of exception that Agamben speaks of? What does it mean to be stripped of your agency; of your ‘yeses’ and your ‘nos’?

Clinical psychiatry has historically been experienced by many as a space of coercion and traumatisation, despite its purported best intentions. Common practices include forced restraint, forced isolation or involuntary commitment, as well as potentially harmful ‘treatments’ that cannot always be justified as lifesaving. Electroconvulsive therapy comes to mind. These practices are often accompanied by a pervasive attitude of ‘we know best’; a sometimes-Orwellian omnipotence of authority structures and figures.

The medical system can at times (re)produce a breakdown in relational intelligibility, in mutual understanding, where the ethics of care (a framework that respects the sovereignty of patient-subjects) is lost. In such instances, people in need of treatment are turned into passive objects without voice, regardless of whether they can speak or not.

In Sophie Hoyle’s film Aphonia18, we are drawn into a charged, visceral and claustrophobic space of clinical bodily intrusions, which speaks to the medical establishment’s preoccupation with a form of bare life: mouth, membrane, tongue, throat, muscle, the animal mechanics of biological functioning. There is a stubborn fixation on probing the body as ‘failed instrument’, with diminished human regard and little sense of the collaborative process that healing should be. Forced utterances where muteness has been misinterpreted as ‘mechanical malfunction’, when in fact a loss of voice can be a normal trauma response; the body and mind perhaps working just as they should.

Isn’t this rupture in comprehension partly a consequence of ‘othering’? The reduction of a person to a clinical ‘thing’? A dehumanisation. Imposed interpretations. A misguided certainty of what needs to be done to ‘fix it’. The medical community sometimes fails here. It is a failure to connect, to understand, to adequately collaborate, to evolve, to allow a trauma survivor or patient to retain their own narrative worthy of hearing/receiving; to allow them to retain their inherent authority over their own lived experience.

But who will heed the caged bird’s song and the beating of the bars?

Language and speech are always tied up with the social, collective world, yes, but they are also one of our most basic individual avenues for the expression of agency, identity and personal freedom.

We can speak even when silent, and so, too, can we be heard.

Long after one of the final frames of Aphonia before the end credits roll, the narrator’s voice lingers on in a resound that echoes a now familiar refrain in Hoyle’s film, urging us to take note, to pay attention, to really open our minds and our ears:

“Stop trying to make us speak.        

                          Stop trying to make us speak.

But when we speak                            




Jinan Coulter is a documentary filmmaker and Public Programmes Manager, Adult Learning at Sharjah Art Foundation.



1 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (Edinburgh Press, 1922), p. 74.
2 From Sophie Hoyle, Aphonia (2024), film.
3 Minnita Daniel-Cox, The brief but shining life of Paul Laurence Dunbar, a poet who gave dignity to the Black experience, The Conversation, March 2023. Retrieved from: https://theconversation.com/the-brief-but-shining-life-of-paul-laurence-dunbar-a-poet-who-gave-dignity-to-the-black-experience-191553
4 “It is worth recalling Aristotle’s famous reflection in the Politics, when he states that social life is only possible because man has speech, unlike animals, which only have a voice” in Javier Barraycoa Martinez, The Transformation of Individualism and Loneliness in Times of Pandemics, Scientia et Fides Vol. 11, No. 1 (2023): p. 189. http://dx.doi.org/10.12775/SetF.2023.011
5 Noam Chomsky said: “A language is not just words. It’s a culture, a tradition, a unification of a community, a whole history that creates what a community is. It’s all embodied in a language” in Anne Makepeace, We Still Live Here: Âs Nutayuneân (2011), documentary film.
6 Shira Wolosky, “Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Crossing Languages”, Poetry and Public Discourse in Nineteenth-Century America. Palgrave Macmillan, New York (2010): p. 153. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230113008_11
7 From Sophie Hoyle, Aphonia (2024), film.
8 Madhu Singh, Comparative Literature Paper XIV ( C ) Unit III, accessed February 16, 2024, https://www.lkouniv.ac.in/site/writereaddata/siteContent/202004291550071024PROF-MADHU-SINGH-ENGLISH-MAYA%20ANGELOU.pdf
9 Sarah Healy, Maya Angelou speaks to 2,000 at Arlington Theater, Daily Nexus, last modified February 21, 2001, accessed February 16, 2024, https://dailynexus.com/2001-02-21/maya-angelou-speaks-to-2000-at-arlington-theater/
10 “John L. Austin, a British philosopher, first introduced speech act theory in his 1959 book How to Do Things with Words, Nicole Kain and Rahman Johnson, Speech Act Theory: Overview, Types and Pragmatics, last modified November 21, 2023, accessed February 21, 2024, retrieved from https://study.com/academy/lesson/speech-act-theory-definition-pragmatics.html
11 Agus Hidayat, Speech Acts: Force Behind Words, English Education: Jurnal Tadris Bahasa Inggris Vol. 9, No. 1 (2016): p. 4. DOI Prefix 10.24042/ee-jtbi by Crossref, http:ejournal.radenintan.ac.id/index.php/ENGEDU
12 Maria Popova, Maya Angelou on Courage and Facing Evil, The Marginalian, accessed February 17, 2024, https://www.themarginalian.org/2014/08/19/maya-angelou-bill-moyers-facing-evil/
13 From Sophie Hoyle, Aphonia (2024), film.
14 Ian Buchanan, A Dictionary of Critical Theory, (Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 10.
15 Ibid. p. 41
17 “Agamben is interested in what he calls the ‘zone of indistinction’ between norm and exception. His originality resides in the claim that zoe¯ – humans as animals without speech and political freedom – is re-included in politics when the state of exception is declared and materialised in the form of camps” in Patricia Owens, Reclaiming ‘Bare Life’?: Against Agamben on Refugees, International Relations, Vol. 23, No. 4 (2009): p. 571. DOI 10.1177/0047117809350545, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0047117809350545
18 From Sophie Hoyle, Aphonia (2024), film.
19 ‘Aphonia’ is the term used to describe a loss of voice.
20 From Sophie Hoyle, Aphonia (2024), film.

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