Speech Work

In his Six Lectures on Sound and Meaning, the linguist Roman Jakobson writes about a treatise published in 1718 titled “Sur la fille sans langue” (“On the girl with no tongue”). The irony of this title was that the girl without a tongue (langue) was not in fact without language (langue), since she spoke just fine. “As far as the latter [language] is concerned, the former [the tongue] is dispensable,” Jakobson wrote. Human phonatory organs were remarkably flexible: the larynx could produce sounds ordinarily made by the tongue without the hearer being able to tell the difference. Jakobson concluded, “the study of speech sounds has often suffered from a kind of tongue-fetishism.” The essence of speech had been concentrated, falsely, in the tongue.

Under the fetishism of the tongue, speech is reified and tongues, very often, personified. The reification of speech: I learned recently that I began to stutter not because of an inherited neurological abnormality, but because of a malfunction in my Fisher-Price sing-along cassette recorder. At two or three years old, I was speaking into it when the playback tripped and my voice came back at me in unrecognizable form. From that moment, the story goes, I stuttered. The tape recorder and I had entered into an irreversible unity, inside of which speech did not coincide with the will to speak. Speech was reconfigured as a machine, an object, an apparatus to be wielded with great difficulty, and to wield the machine wrongly meant to invite the wrath of the social world. Speech was reified for me, from then on, as a thing of the tongue.

Speech therapy, undertaken through childhood and adolescence, further reified speech. It estranged us from our tongues, the better to control them. Studying diagrams of the larynx, we were trained in hypersensitivity to the muscles of the oratory system. Mastering speech was a matter of work. It demanded intense concentration, regular self-assessment, strict organization of time, food and toilet breaks, enough sleep, and pre-prepared meals. There were boot camps as well as the usual after-school sessions. We were trained to discipline all our habits of expression through the softening of plosives, the extension of fricatives, the opening of nasals, and the prolongation of all sounds in a “technique” that was known as “Naturalness.” But there was nothing natural about working so hard. I was overworked and overidentified with work. I hated myself for foot-dragging, but then the moments outside of work were, really, the only reason for working so hard anyway. Intending to note my resistance to technique in my CBT diary, I gave up. I lapsed into shitty speech.

Naturalness technique, known more formally as Camperdown, is described as a “speech restructuring program” that proposes the adult stutterer “learns a novel speech pattern that is incompatible with stuttering.” What I learned, across many years of speech therapy and more stuttering, is, however, that very little is incompatible with stuttering. I thought for a short time that pursing my lips and releasing a very soft fart sound as a pre-emptive entry into difficult phonetic intervals was incompatible with stuttering, but I was proved wrong. I was variously told that chewing gum, feeling a male hand on my back, fastening a fabric strap across my chest, and enunciating syllables in a tempo prescribed by a metronome were incompatible with stuttering. Another time I was told that what was in fact incompatible with stuttering was the wearing of a headset attached to a tape recorder that fed one’s own voice back into one’s ears at a microsecond delay, creating the illusion of speaking in chorus. The SpeechEasy, as it was called, worked for the first ten minutes, during which I was seized by a great joy which, however, soon turned to dejection as the stutter reemerged. In my dreams, the pattern “incompatible with stuttering” involves turning my lips inside out and wrapping them around my face. Aged fifteen, in waking life now, I settled on a final incompatible pattern whereby I would mimic a clown machine, the type found in fairgrounds. (The clowns turn slowly while small balls are aimed at their mouths, which are wide-open black holes.) I tried this one day, opening my jaw as wide as it would possibly go, in an effort to prevent an interminable block, and it worked. In a rush of gratification, I promised to integrate it into my speech for good. But as time wore on, the gesture, which speech pathologists call a secondary behavior, quietly took the form of the stutter itself. So, there are no incompatible patterns, only exceptions that are fast recuperated by a brain furrowed by its symptom. The reification remains; talking is a thing, and all things are either things we control or things that control us.

The onset of stuttering is known to be rapid. About half the time, it develops in less than three days. Three-quarters of children who stutter recover by adulthood. It’s not clear what the difference is between those who do and those who don’t. Their brains look different, but that seems more like a result than a cause. There’s a hereditary element, causing some genetic disposition to stuttering. But to rely entirely on genetics would explain very little–not least why stuttering follows some of us around wherever our desire goes, and why it disappears the instant speech becomes no longer a need but an afterthought. Stuttering leaves off when speech is barely audible (in whispering), detached from the exigencies of communication (in song or chorus), decoupled from identity (in performance). Genetics also would do little to explain why this curious impairment arises with such great vengeance right when we need speech the most. (Almost every stutterer stutters on their own name; for over a year I couldn’t say “hello” or any other normal greeting.) So, does the development of stuttering come down purely to “environmental” factors? In an effort to test this, an experiment conducted at the University of Iowa in 1939 attempted to induce stuttering in young orphans. Telling fluent children that they showed symptoms of stuttering indeed precipitated a number of stutter-like responses, including secondary behaviors shared by many adult stutterers. Betty Romp, the clinical notes reported, “held [her] hand or arm over eyes most of the time.” Hazel Potter, when asked why she said “a” so much, replied “because I’m afraid I can’t say the next word.” “Why did you snap your fingers?” “Because I was afraid I was going to say ‘a.’” It would later be known as the Monster Study. Its subjects all suffered lasting trauma, although they did not stutter into adulthood. We might add, however, that the sample size was small, and the children much older than the normal age of the onset of developmental stuttering.

The Monster Study took place during a period of heightened interest in stuttering. The University of Iowa had established itself during the 1920s as a center of the emerging discipline of speech pathology, which viewed stuttering for the first time as a disorder suited to scientific study and intervention. Behind the birth of such disciplines lay a broader rehabilitative shift in the approach to disability, in the United States as well as Britain, prompted by the return of disabled and traumatized veterans after World War I. The need for an expanded labor force in these countries from the 1930s onward corresponded to a range of state initiatives aiming to integrate formerly institutionalized sections of the population. Roused by this new social imperative, different theories of stuttering came into conflict during the 1930s. Neurological approaches insisted we understood stuttering as a kind of spasm of the brain–a variant of epilepsy or aphasia. Psychoanalysis claimed that stuttering was a neurotic symptom, although the personality conflict from which it arose was disputed: libido fixation at the oral stage or the aggressive tendencies of the anal stage? The paradigm that came to dominate for the following decades conceptualized stuttering as a learned behavior. For some, this meant it was a simple motor habit to be unlearned through negative practice. For others, things were more complex, and the reaction (or overreaction) of the child’s caregivers to the normal variations in the child’s speech was seen to play an essential role in the development of stuttering. Wendell Johnson, designer of the Monster Study and a key figure in speech pathology during this period, insisted that the stutter lived “not in the child’s mouth but the parent’s ear.”

While the theories of Johnson, along with the heterodox speech pathologist Charles Van Riper, had laid the foundations for the behaviorism of the 1960s, the latter behaviorists all but abandoned this interpersonal aetiology. This might not have been entirely a bad thing–enough mothers had been blamed for their children’s predicaments–yet the foundational assumption of behaviorism, that the things bodies and minds did could be controlled by strategies of punishment and reinforcement, shifted all responsibility back onto the stutterer, who was now to be the agent possessing, or lacking, sufficient will to overcome their disability. Desensitization and reciprocal inhibition were prescribed as therapies. Devices such as the metronome and the Perceptoscope, a 16mm film strip used to train stutterers in “speech pacing,” were trialled. Stutterers submitted tirelessly to doses of positive reinforcement and negative inhibition to coax them into a fluency that would relapse, most often, the minute they stepped out of the clinic.

One such behaviorist approach, which would lay the foundations for the Camperdown and Lidcombe techniques, was developed by Israel Goldiamond. A Ukrainian-born psychologist based in Chicago, Goldiamond had, at fifty years old, lost the use of his legs in a car accident. “I had no time to sit around weeping about my accident,” he said later, “about the fact that I no longer could hike with my wife in our leisure time or move about as I once had.” He resumed his research, teaching, and clinical practice from his hospital bed within weeks of his injury. His stuttering therapy, known as Fluency Shaping, required that his patients begin by establishing a “contract” determining the level of fluency they wished to achieve at the conclusion of their therapy. Goldiamond explained this mandate as part of a broader approach he termed “self-control.” “Given a specified behavior B and a specified environmental variable x, a lawful relation can be found, such that B = f (x)…When the S himself sets x at that value, he will get his own B, as stipulated.” Or in less technical terms: “if you want a specified behavior from yourself, set up the conditions which you know will control it.” Having drawn up the contract, Goldiamond’s patient would undertake a series of drills in a new speech pattern, most often what he termed prolonged speech (elongated vowels, gentle onsets, a reduced rate). The program was marked by regular self-monitoring, goal-setting, and evaluation. The client got the fluency they wanted. It was claimed by Goldiamond to have considerable success.

The Camperdown Program Manual includes in its appendix the copy of a short sample text used to train clients in its prolonged speech technique. It is about a rainbow. Across my adolescence, I recited it hundreds or perhaps thousands of times. Until I came across it again looking through the manual recently, I had no memory of its contents at all. For Goldiamond, as for those who developed Camperdown after him, the speech of the clinic needed to be decoupled from semantics, since the desire that attaches itself to meaning is anathema to self-control. Accordingly, we are trained to strip the words spoken in the clinic from all referentiality, to transform them into mere sounds. Such sounds, unfeeling and lifeless as they are, can be produced by us with great efficiency. Intensive therapy hopes to train us to produce such a surplus of them that we might forget we have ever not been able to make them. In other words, so that the work of speech as sound production might blend into the joy of speech as life, and we might forget the boundary between the clinic and the world.

But it’s not easy to forget one is working. The Camperdown manual also includes in its appendix a final section dedicated to “Maintenance Issues.” A checklist: “(1) Is the client continuing with practice and self-evaluation routines? (2) Does the client have a plan for dealing with any signs of relapse? (3) Has the client responded promptly to any signs of relapse? (4) Does client have realistic expectations of long-term treatment benefits? (5) Is client aware of resources such as local self-help groups?” Maintenance–taking the technique outside of the clinic–was the grand flaw of the Camperdown system. Camperdown worked beautifully when you were saying precisely nothing; when you wanted to say something, or to talk to someone, Camperdown did not work, because you did not use it.

The intensive focus on the tongue cultivated during my years of speech therapy left me with the feeling that all social relations revolved around the tongue. This was not true, of course. And yet without any precedents for accessibility, it is difficult for stutterers to conceive of their disability as something that in fact lives somewhere other than their own mouths. Thousands of people write on stuttering forums every day. They write of their difficulty moving through life. They write of losing their partners, being turned down for jobs, being harassed at work and in class; they write of loneliness, humiliation, social phobia, addiction, abuse, depression. Frequently, they write of their own achievements–their personal “incompatible patterns.” One user suggests that before speaking you should “find a way to suck out the saliva collected inside your mouth, especially around the root of your tongue. If you still feel sticky inside, sip some water, rinse and swallow, for the moment when the tongue is free from saliva interference, speak normally, position the tongue, the jaw and lips in the normal fashion to speak, see if there is an improvement in your speech pattern.” (This continues.) Another insists that “the movements involved in speaking should be natural, very similar to the natural chewing motion when eating, such as the movement of the jaw and grinding of the teeth, but the teeth don’t actually grind each other, there is a small gap to allow natural movement between upper and lower teeth, imagine there is food in the gap.” (This becomes increasingly complex.) Someone else proposes Om chanting because stutterers, they insist, have smaller throats than fluent speakers; whatever the case may be, they are “fairly certain the problem of stuttering resides in the throat.”

Very rarely, in these forums, does the conversation turn outward, to the world through which the stutterer has such trouble moving. If stuttering did not live in the tongue, where would it live? That is, if we understand disability not to be characterized as an impairment of the disabled but an impairment of the social world, then what kind of world could actually “accommodate” the stutterer? The resistance of stuttering to the most minimal notions of access, in spite of over forty years of disability advocacy, is striking. There are no precedents for dealing with stuttering in workplaces or schools, let alone in public life. Perhaps this is because extra time is quite simply more difficult to secure than almost anything else. More likely, it is because the apparatus on which the stutterer’s ability to navigate any given situation depends is perplexingly interpersonal and temporal, extending far beyond the objects conventionally associated with access–the ramp, the interpreter, the braille signage. Stuttering, lacking the visible indicators that would enable it to be read as a problem not of disability but disablement, is instead submerged in what Michael Oliver, who coined the social model of disability, calls the “personal tragedy theory.” It is from this foundation that the antinomies of pity and heroism, pathology and overcoming, which stuttering struggles to escape, are all derived.

In The Politics of Disablement, Oliver writes of communities that, due to a high proportion of deaf members, have instituted universal sign language. Reversing the terms of this image prompts a series of questions that stutterers, or maybe everyone, tend to repress: what would it be like if the whole world stuttered? How would we measure time? Will? The relationship between our intentions and our acts? These kinds of questions are ones that speech therapy prohibits–speech pathologies are defined as such because they are unevenly distributed. If the world was founded not on a scarcity of speech pathologies but on the scarcity of speech, it might be otherwise. In any case, if the whole world stuttered, and even if we all suffered from it, it would also, at the very least, become clear the degree to which this suffering was scaffolded by the apparatus of social life rarely visible to the non-disabled body. The least visible of all such scaffolds is the crutch, or crux, of the stutter: the relations between people themselves, here converted into a relation between tongues, between things.

It’s difficult to say anything about stuttering except what it is not. It is not, let’s say, a great unused power to unleash on the world, introducing a rupture into the abstract time of labor under capitalism, non-places of inexplicable duration into the situations designed around their impossibility. It does not disrupt the fluency of exchange value, nor even the fluency exchange value desires or is perceived to possess. It is not a hydraulic metaphor for our social pressure cooker, enabling us to reverse the habitual order of things to say that build-ups and explosions are good and all kinds of flows are in fact bad. Nor is it that stuttering in some way expresses the lead weight of social trauma in a way that might enable us to overcome it. Stuttering is not even, as some might insist, a pure and simple “historical” problem, some symptom of our current mode of production. Nor, however, if this historicity is oriented not only to humanity’s known past but also to its infinite possible futures, is it in any way ahistorical. Whatever it is, it cannot quite simply be made good again, reconstructed in its authenticity, as the flaw into which could be glimpsed all that was real and good and true about the world. I tried all of these things. I tried hard to imagine we could love blockage and brokenness, but the reality was that I was sad. I wanted to be with people, but I couldn’t talk to them.

“No bumps there,” “that was lovely smooth talking,” say parents to their stuttering children across the world, implementing the only technique that actually seems to have some genuine success as a very early-stage intervention: the Lidcombe Program. Lidcombe is based on a behavioral, largely reward-based, model. The principle is banal: the “treatment agent” is quite simply the parent, who must talk to the child about their stutter and not to shy away from it. (In Lidcombe-speak, they must introduce “verbal contingencies.”) Most importantly, they must be kind. The ratio of kindness is, to be specific, a minimum of five-sixths. “The important rule to stress to parents,” the manual says, “is that there must be at least five comments on stammer-free speech for every comment on stammered speech.” Ratios aside, “it will not work if the child does not enjoy it and feel it is a positive experience.” It is not beyond reason that the only cure for this mysterious disability, a psychoanalytic symptom if there ever was one, is to love the sounds a small child makes out of the unevenly developing organs they happen to have; to lay on this child enough love that the gnawing knowledge that our tongues might be a thing, that we do not coincide with ourselves, and that the social world may collapse on us at any moment, might be forgotten.

Cover Image: Joseph Faber’s “Talking Machine,” 1845

*This essay was first published in We Do Not Believe in the Good Faith of the Victors, a one-off publication by Fraile Press, London. Thanks to Tom Allen.

Miri Davidson

Miri Davidson is a PhD candidate in political theory at Queen Mary, University of London. She works on the intersection of Marxism and primitivism in postwar French thought.