115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Audiovisual Counterpoint: Because Your Face Has a Different Accent

Tingting Hui, Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society (LUCAS)

The face and its relation to language and voice appears to fascinate many scholars, among whom are philosophers like Deleuze and Guattari and film theorists like Michel Chion. This paper, taking cues from the aforementioned scholars and others, aims to look at what it is like to imagine and encounter a face, what does one actually see and hear of a face on screen, and how does the interaction of face and speech inform our way of knowing. 


This paper aims to look at the phenomenon of speaking with an accent that does not seem to be justified by one’s face. For example, it never fails to trigger curiosity when someone who looks Asian speaks with a typical American English accent. Such a phenomenon, I suggest, could be called “audiovisual counterpoint” (11), a term Michel Chion has developed in his book Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. Chion understands “the audiovisual relationship as a contract” (Murch xxvi), which alludes to a reciprocal interaction between sound and image in the context of the cinema. Correspondingly, the viewing experience is not about seeing pictures plus hearing sounds, and does not generally attest to a neat division of audiovisual perceptions. However, what makes the cinema artistically expressive, Chion emphasizes, is when it refrains from stimulating and naturalizing the sensory completeness of the viewer, by breaking the audiovisual contract or putting it in danger. Therefore, Chion uses the term “audiovisual counterpoint” to highlight this moment of breach in film, and to illustrate the fragility of the audiovisual contract and its effects on the audience.

I propose to transplant this term from film theory to a critical reading of a particular mode of encounter where one’s speech or accent is not ‘synched’ to one’s face at the outset. Instead of addressing the audiovisual dissonance between sound and image, I use this term to look at the instance where one’s speech ceases to be a flat illustration of the face, and to see how it incites an “instantaneous perceptual triage” (The Voice in Cinema 3) on the listener, who either prioritizes ‘hearing’ the face or ‘seeing’ the speech. I will develop this concept of “audiovisual counterpoint” by migrating it to the field of literary and critical theory, especially in relation to Deleuze and Guattari’s conceptualization of the relation between face and speech. At the same time, to give the concept a head-on confrontation with lived experiences, I will give a close reading of the cultural theorist Ien Ang’s autobiographical account mentioned in her book On Not Speaking Chinese.