On Superstitio and the Horror of Compulsion


Image: Victorian Horror Vacui’ by John Haverty

(This post is a response to the 25/4 ‘Audio Research Article v2‘, however it does stray markedly from that terrain, and therefore appears as a separate post. I see that both Patrick and Josephine have subsequently written pieces that address some of the concerns below, so apart from the urge to challenge a few of their initial ideas, this post allows me a little exploration.)

In Patrick 25/4, (sounds rather biblical, sorry), he writes that “Jo has written a line I hadn’t noticed before which has suddenly smacked me in the face, ‘I think most writing arises from superstitious behaviour…’” Patrick continues, “this might be the best line ever written about the artistic process.” In Josephine 11/5 (surely old testament, no?) she identifies Slavoj Zizek’s complaint that “…writer’s block is not the true horror, rather, it is the opposite: the compulsion to keep on writing.” Furthermore, Zizek’s “whole economy of writing is in fact based upon an obsessional ritual to avoid the actual act of writing.”

I think Patrick is right to be hit by Jo’s line, for it is powerful and not easily parsed, even to my atheist mind. It identifies that writing (more generally, the artistic process), is often full of spurious drives and desires, prey to a semi-conscious ruse or two, that enable us to complete the task. (That’s right, I must replace that lightbulb..) But is this ‘superstition’? Zizek appears to be saying that ‘obsessional ritual’ is a way of dealing with the ‘horror of compulsion’, (once we accept this as the true horror), and that it is a scary yet necessary response. Ritual, though sometimes superstitious, need not be so. Obsession, though often worthy of fear, does not require a recourse to the supernatural. I suggest that these drives and desires become the province of the psychoanalytic and not the supernatural; that (for better or worse) these fears, rituals and compulsions arrive from the territory of the unconscious. I would therefore claim that the ‘horror of compulsion’ is a very real and rational fear, and one that we can, and should, decouple from ‘superstition’. If nothing else, it may well be simply a question of degree; of how much this fear actually results in the starting and/or finishing of a work, and how much we might rely on ‘techniques to get the job done’.

What then for superstition? The Oxford dictionary defines ‘superstition’ as: “irrational awe or fear of the unknown…religious belief or practice founded on fear or ignorance…credulity regarding religion or the supernatural…” (OxDic: 3113).

So if superstition is more narrowly a type of fear of the unknown, it easily accords with our ignorance of, or refusal to admit, the psychoanalytic. Is not the project of psychoanalysis one of trying to bring the subliminal drives into the light, to attempt an understanding of our behaviours and motivations? Is it not a process that moves us away from superstition? So I reiterate, that while Jo’s line is not easily parsed, there need not be any residue of the supernatural in the artistic process. However, if superstition is this belief in a practice centred on fear, what this belief might disguise is the surprise in finding out that, ‘I am stuck’, and the serious disappointment that, ‘I don’t seem to have what it takes to finish the job’. So as a remedy, we can employ tricks, devices, subterfuge and mis-directions, that become the necessary and clever techniques in response to the very real Zizekian horror of compulsion. But, can we generalise from Jo’s line, and Patrick’s initial response, that the artistic process is one of working with fear? Is this what is left for our praxis?

To a large extent, yes. Leonard Cohen is said to have remarked that (song)writing is ‘more a sentence than a vocation’. It then becomes unreasonable for us to expect a linear path to the completion of a work, and we must admit that this compulsion can be tyrannical and overwhelming. We must allow the detours, (necessary and unnecessary), to realise the work. So yes, I am in sympathy with the idea that the artistic process can be full of deceptions, but these are not superstition; yes they are prone to compulsion, but need not be prone to the irrational – for there is a logic to the psychoanalytic. Zizek identifies what he calls Lacan’s single best known formula: “the unconscious is structured as a language;” the unconscious itself obeys its own grammar and logic, “the unconscious talks and thinks” (Zizek 2006: 3). Not surprisingly then, language for Lacan becomes “a gift as dangerous to humanity as the horse was to the Trojans; it offers itself to our use free of charge, but once we accept it, it colonizes us” (Zizek 2006: 11).

We might approach ‘superstition’ another way, by its opposition to a very closely related term, ‘religio’. It can be placed in a binary of superstitio / religio. ‘Superstitio’, following the latin, is read as an ‘irrational or excessive fear of the gods’, while ‘religio’ is the ‘proper or reasonable fear of the gods’ (Lewis)(EtymologyDic). Is the writing we are discussing here superstitio or religio? Can the term ‘the gods’, construed as I do, be synonymous with ‘writing’? If so, it would subversively appear that writing is in fact ‘religio’, requiring a ‘proper and reasonable fear’ of its horrible excesses. We might engage with this problem by claiming that writing/the gods, do not deserve our fear, especially on the political grounds of a disobedience to the tyrannical authority of its power to compel. Art/writing then becomes a paradox: it enslaves us to its compulsion, but it is also the act that undermines this power, and allows us to disobey its (and many other) authorities. Eric Fromm reminds us that civilization was created by acts of disobedience; Prometheus, even Adam and Eve,  with their actions allowed us to come into being (Fromm 2010: 3). Maybe we are only ever ‘one word ahead’ (one word behind) of this ever-present horror. Perhaps this predicament allows us to remember that art is the only activity that grants the abandonment of all rules.

I will put aside any further fear that mention of god creates in me to reiterate my point, which is – fear (and its subterfuge), need not rely on superstition. I think we can redefine fear of the uncreated, the incomplete and the abandoned, as a fear of compulsion; but also its result. For to acknowledge that compulsion, and not superstition, is central to the creative process, we find yet another way to say that god is dead. Mikhail Bakunin wrote that “if god really existed, it would be necessary to abolish him.” Yet, we might have recourse to return to Zizek on Lacan with, ‘god is not dead, but unconscious’ (Zizek 2007). This of course plays havoc with the standard atheist position. I would then say that while god is being unconscious, I might just have to get ‘on with my song’, and change that light bulb later.


Charlton T. Lewis, Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0059:entry=religio

Fromm, Eric 2010, Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem, in ‘On Disobedience’. Essay originally appeared in Clara Urquhary, A Matter of Life (London: Jonathan Cape, 1963).

Online Etymology Dictionary, “Superstitio” and “Religion”, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=superstitio&searchmode=none

Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 2007 6th edition, Vol. 2, N-Z, Oxford University Press

Zizkek, Slavoj 2007, “God is Dead, but He Doesn’t Know It”: Lacan Plays with Bobok, http://www.lacan.com/zizbobok.html

Zizek, Slavoj  2006, How to Read Lacan, W.W Norton & Company Inc., New York

Lyrebird: Sound to service Narrative


(A response to ‘Patrick 25/4’,for the Audio Research Article v2′, conducted at writingfix)

In considering Patrick’s three categories – place, memory, narrative – I would agree that “the first two are becoming enmeshed and the third is the means by which we express this” (25/4). The references below, as requested, are also divided into these two (neat yet not exclusive) categories for the same reason. They are collected from my film studies and specific research for the Lyrebird Project, that is, the radioplay ‘Under the Forest’ and the sonic poem ‘Ladyswamp’. What I see is that my interest in ‘sound to service narrative’ is mostly understood through the art of film making. This also contrasts with my interest in non-narrative sound and music. The binary of narrative/non-narrative continues to absorb my interest and was applied to the sound design and music composition for the Lyrebird project. Furthermore,  ‘sound in film’ theory held me in good stead for the work of ‘narrative sound’ in the Lyrebird project where clearly a proffered visual is not just absent, but unneccessary. Or, the visual is only to be discovered in the imaginary of the listener.

My understanding of ‘narrative’ based on these film studies, is that narrative is not the story, but rather, how the story is put together. This helps me, as the definition of the term ‘narrative’ seems to vary according to the different arts (writing, film, music, philosophy etc). We can therefore see that there are – linear, episodic, circular, hidden, unresolved, etc, narratives, regardless of what the story is doing. As mentioned elsewhere , I have come to hear that music might well be the only form that can truly express the non-narrative. But this idea strays from our task of ‘sound to service narrative’. What is of interest to me, and briefly discussed in (TK 5/4), are the categories of place – of the diegesis: diegetic, non-diegetic and meta-diegetic. An example of meta-diegetic sound might be, sound imagined, or perhaps, hallucinated by a character (Milicevic). In Audio Research Article v1, Patrick identifies that the radioplay text is essentially a meta-narrative, where the story of the child lost to the forest is distorted and internalised by the memory of the narrators. Here there is a dialogue between the non-diegetic and the meta-narrative. I remind the reader that the sonic place from which the radioplay narrators speak is that of the non-diegetic; it is not a sound imagined or hallucinated, but intended as a sound that is completely outside the experience of  the radioplay, to create as much distance as possible (a Brechtian alienation even), to allow the text enough space to realise its meta-narrative quality, to become the elusive – ‘sound of memory’.

I have been contemplating Carter’s powerful statement, that Josephine reminded us of (3/4), which is, “to sound a space is to denominate it a place: it is to mark it as an historical event.”  Focusing on the first part of this statement has led me to some curious questions. Is sound the only real way, the best way, to denominate a place? Is any place that has an absence of sound essentially placeless? Even in our suspicion that we do not hear sound, as in imaginary spaces, are we in fact ‘hearing things’ (in a subcoinscious way), thereby allowing that place to be denominated? I have more questions, but will try for some answers before profering them, and hopefully be reformed by responses.

A list of references, useful to me on  ‘theory of sound’. Patrick, I hope this suffices.


Beck, Alan E., Listening to Radio Plays: fictional landscapes,http://cec.sonus.ca/econtact/5_3/beck_listening.html

Carter, Paul 2004, ‪Material Thinking: The Theory and Practice of Creative Research,Melbourne University Publishing

Carter, Paul 2009, Dark Writing, University of Hawaii Press

Carter, Paul 2010, The Road to Botany Bay: An Exploration of Landscape and History,Uni of Minnesota Press

Dunn, David 2001, Nature, Sound Art and the Sacred, http://www.davidddunn.com/~david/writings/terrnova.pdf

Soundscape, The Journal of Acoustic Ecology, World Forum for Acoustic Ecology, http://wfae.proscenia.net/journal/index.html

Toop, David 2010, Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener, Continuum International Publishing Group


Altman, Rick 1992, Sound Theory, Sound Practice, Routledge, New York

Balazs, Bela 1884-1949, Theory of the Film: Sound, https://soma.sbcc.edu/Users/DaVega/FILMST_113/FILMST_113_0ld/GENERALTHEORY/Soundtheory_Balzacs.pdf

Brophy, Phillip 1989, Film Narrative / Narrative Film / Music Narrative / Narrative Music, http://www.philipbrophy.com/projects/rstff/FilmNarrativeMusic_S.html

Milicevic, Mladen Film Sound Beyond Reality: Subjective Sound in Narrative Cinema, http://filmsound.org/articles/beyond.htm

Sonnenschein, David 2001, Sound design: the expressive power of music, voice, and sound effects in cinema, Michael Wiese Productions, Studio City

Spande, Robert 1996, The Three Regimes: A Theory of Film Music, http://www.robertspande.com/19037.html

Truppin, Andrea 1992, And Then There Was Sound: The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky, inSound Theory, Sound Practice, Altman, Rick (ed) http://filmsound.org/owesvensson/truppin.htm