Yesterday I participated in some stuttering research for the University of Sydney’s Australian Stuttering Research Centre. The research sought to establish/investigate the link between anxiety and stuttering. Anecdotally, after stuttering for most of my life, I can emphatically state: yes, there is a link. However, this is not the same thing as having scientific proof to back it up, or being able to explain the exact nature of the link. Steve Shaviro rightly attacked some suspect research in a recent blog post. He calls it ‘bad science’. Well I guess I am writing this up as an example of ‘good science’. Why is it good science?
For starters, a similar binary of social vs biological to that of Steven’s ‘lesbian research’ example exists within stuttering or ‘speech communication’ science. Acording to the ASRC’s own website that “stuttering is thought to be a physical disorder and is not thought to be caused by psychological factors such as nervousness or stress.” They use the same language that Steven finds problematic, ie stuttering is ‘physical’ and not ‘psychological’. The obvious point here is that of course it is going to be ‘physical’, it involves the capacity to speak! I think they mean it is more neurophysiological rather than socio-psychological. Remember, they are after causes, as another website (that links to the ASRC website) puts it: “Stutterers tend to stutter more when they are tired, upset, excited and nervous, but this is not the cause of the disorder.” I find this language problematic.
Stuttering here is approached in absolute terms: you are a stutterer or you are not. Maybe it would be more productive to think of it in terms of everyone stutters or has some ‘speech impediment’ to some degree; from this perspective the illusion of mechanistic fluent speech — highly valued in our ‘fast talking’ world, and mostly evident from the likes of politicians and lawyers — is a social construct. I realised at an early age that many people speak in similar ways to stutterers. What mademe think of this was the Prime Minister of Australian (at the time), Bob Hawke. He didn’t stutter, however he did have a habit of speaking with a lot of ‘ahhhhhh’s and ‘errrr’s. These sounds are often enunciated in the place of words as one is thinking, ‘ummmm’ is another classic example. However, when I make these sounds, more often than not, it is not because I don’t know what to say, it is because my speech mechanism is refusing to allow me to enunciate the sound/words. The increased frequency of stuttering in those so-called stutterers may be triggered from social contexts, what the ASRC calls ‘communicational contexts’. What I would call a specific form of event; an individuation organised around a haeceitty that pertains to the communicational context of stuttering. (See one of my early blog posts from my first reading of Deleuze’s The Logic of Sense about stuttering and about my stuttering.)
Anyway, one of the principle researchers came in to speak to me after the experiment as it had not gone entirely to plan. The experiment itself was very tricky, mainly in terms of the ethics of deliberately making someone anxious. Anyone who has done fieldwork or interview work at a univeristy will know the rigmorale of getting ethics clearance. To produce this anxiety they played with the relation between speaker and audience roughly through the logic of ‘public speaking’ (using a one way mirror and a crowd of lay people). The first problem is that I was not very concerned about 10 strangers hearing me talk about things. I have been on national television for youth driving issues, spoken in front of thousands of people numerous times, and so on. I don’t get anxious about public speaking per se. I am quite confident about most things.
The second problem is regarding social dimension of the words (un)spoken and language (not) used. The speaking part of the experiment involved me speaking in an unstructured ‘free association’ type of expression basically working from trigger cards for 3 minutes at a time. Cards ranged from topics including ‘last holiday’ to ‘reality television – love it or hate it’. The problem with this is that I can think much faster than I speak and I can self-select words, phrases, and whole topics so that I do not get anxious at all and I do not stutter very much. There are two dimensions to this. I stutter most on what are called the ‘explosive’ sounds that need me to lock up part of my speech mechanism to enunciate the sound. One of the hardest ones I have found is the ‘c-uhh’ of ‘cultural’, same as the ‘m-ohh’ of ‘modified’ as one needs to lock one’s jaw in place to enunciate the ‘m’ sound. In the language of Deleuze and Guattari, stuttering is an affective sign expression of such “explosive sound-enunciation-speech mechanism” singularities; the constellation of these singularities is one dimension of the haeceitty (the ‘thisness’) of my stuttering. See also one of Scot’s old blog posts on affect and signs, ‘affect, as Deleuze writes, is a sign that registers on the body’.
On another level, I stutter the most when asking a question of well respected senior academics at conferences or seminars and sometimes when giving papers at seminars of conferences. Here the issue is that there is a specific way I would like to express a question, a specific set of concepts or references and so on that I would like to ask about. It is the specificity of the language that traps me within a moment of anxiety. When I am given or give myself no other option than what needs to be asked or said, then that is when I have the most trouble. This is another dimension of the above haeceitty of explosive sound-enunciation-speech mechanism that bridges the ‘explosive sound’ and ‘speech mechanism’ on the other side of the singular haeceitty to that of enunciation. Lets call this side of the haeceitty ‘thought’. I have given lectures and didn’t have a problem mainly because I practiced the lecture and delivery for three days straight beforehand! Perhaps in this regard I am an not part of a normative cohort.
What do I mean by being ‘trapped within a moment of anxiety’? I mean the anxiety is largely a sensation, that is, I experience my own affective response to the situation (‘communicational context’ — event) of my own speech. It unfolds like an out-of-control far-from-equilibrium system — the exact opposite of the ‘fluent speech’ taken to be a social ideal. If ‘fluent speech’ is not merely a social ideal, then someone could point to that part of the body that suggests that fluent speech is demanded as a pysiological necessity. (On the contrary, fluent speech is a machinic necessity.)
What makes this experiment and research-in-progress ‘good science’ is that the researchers are clearly attempting to investigate the implicit assumptions that determine current thinking about stuttering regarding the link between anxiety and stuttering and ‘physical’ versus ‘psychological’ causes. The outcomes of the research are a long way off, but it will be good to see what they find.
On another but related note, I would likely fail my PhD in the US, no matter how intelligent I am or how good my research, because of the vivas. Well, actually, that is not necessarily true. As I did a rough equivalent after the first year of my PhD to confirm my candidature with four professors and I went alright. The concept of a viva still pisses me off; imagine how many PhDs must not go ahead in the US because terribly bright young people have some sort of speech problem and can not live up to the socially constructed ideal of ‘fluid speech’?!?! Maybe they have ways around this? Speech problems are more than not understood as a form of learning disability so perhaps there are provisions for this?