Ventriloquial Tropes

This 1-page paper has been added to the Blue Moon Library Report Series. This is REPORT_004 of the series.

Though C.B. Davis’ dissertation was not on the shelves at the Blue Moon, I have spent many hours there with Davis’ dissertation reading about the history of ventriloquism and semiotic analyses of ventriloquial activities. So, technically, it was there. And given the cultural and semiotic context of all of this, it seems apt.
Ventriloquial Tropes



“Ventriloquism in all its forms and connotations foregrounds ‘voice’ not as individual expression, idiolect or linguistic ‘point of view,’ but as the signification of an identity that is always under construction in a give and take dialogue- not only with other ‘voices’ but with every variety of restraint which language and bodies place on communication.” (Davis, p. 4)


Ventriloquism: Identity and the Multiple Voice is a dissertation by C.B. Davis (1997) that uses the history of ventriloquism as a framework to present “a theoretical and cultural study of the relationship of voice to identity in representation.”  Davis presents a taxonomy “according to semiotic and reception factors, specifically, how these ‘ventriloquists,’ have signified the ‘otherness’ of a voice, whether they were mediums, tricksters, authors, or performers.”

Ventriloquism & Voice

As a theoretical launching point, Davis’ semiotic model of ventriloquist performance defines voice as: the signification of identity through linguistic, paralinguistic, and spatial difference. Davis also defines ‘literal’ ventriloquism as “creating sounds or voices that appear to come from somewhere other than their source.” However, various kinds of ventriloquial activities are identified with a major delineation being ventriloquism inside the performance frame and ventriloquism outside the performance frame.  Some types include:

  • ancient “engastrimantis” or “engastrimuthos” – a medium with a secondary voice
  • “channelers” – whether they are contacting gods, ancestors, or other spiritual entities
  • fetish, near, and distant ventriloquism – have object or spatial component
  • possession – a person thought to be inhabited by a spirit
  • inspiration – being a medium for a muse
  • authorship –  writers
  • in performance – visual misdirection and visual capture

The Central Question

The question of “Who is speaking?” is important when the ventriloquial trope is performed. Or, more precisely, “Who did who think was speaking, and to whom?” Davis identifies this as a question with several important dimensions:

  • a question of signification and reception
  • a question of identification in cultural and historical context
  • a question of accountability for what acts of speech can do

Armed with a “rigorous, inter-disciplinary and culture-specific historiography,” Davis critiques the developmental history of ventriloquism, does cultural and semiotic analyses of ventriloquist performance (before and after 20th century), and introduces a semiotic model of ventriloquist performance that identifies the ventriloquial trope as sharing “the signification of an other identity to which the responsibility for speech is deflected, whether through cultural belief, deceptive illusion, or within the self-reflexive frame of a surprisingly wide range of performance forms.”

Work Cited

Davis, C. B. (1997). Ventriloquism: Identity and the Multiple Voice. PhD Dissertation, University of Washington.

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