Hearing you Think

by Caitlin

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Shepherd, C. (2015) Sanctuary. [photograph of installation] Bristol.

Listening. What is it to listen? When I tune into my surroundings, I use the medium of sound as my first sensory preference. First we slow down, then we open our senses, how the world expands. We can mute those words that clutter perception, construct illusions, symbols and representations. If we listen, the world is much more tangible than the process of abstraction and linguistic code. What is it that you hear? How does sound draw a line around your perception, or flush your body with colour, or the stillness of grey. What washes through you based on the unconscious, maybe conscious acknowledgement of your auditory environment?

The violent eye opens, and an all new knowing pours in through the eyes of day. 

The architect Peter Zumthor is fascinated with ambiances, and how atmospheres are created within the built environment. In his book Atmospheres (2006) he presents nine factors that he thinks shapes the detail and nuance of a place. Sonics is one of them. Heavily influenced by music, he continues to dedicate a section of the book to listening. He describes interiors as “large instruments, collecting sound and amplifying it” (Zumthor, 2006, p.29). He continues to locate the importance of sound in space to the memory of his mother in the kitchen. How hearing her prepare food and be present, but at a distance seemed to carve his awareness of sound and space into the artery of his perception.

When I stop to listen, here in rural Wales, it is very quiet. I mean, inside the farmhouse, it is mellow. I can hear my music coming from my speakers on my desk, I’m listening to Andy Stott, a minimal techno DJ whose compositions are elegant, spacious and industrial, also meditative and opening; his music stretches time and space. The noise from beneath is the sound of people laughing and chatting in the kitchen. It is muted gently, as the sound passes through the wooden beams, and up through the wooden floor. Outside there is a physical sense of stillness, deep stillness and hardly any loud sounds impose themselves. The feeling I have here is of home, of tribe, of deep regeneration and calm. Perhaps it is clear from my description, but listening is not only a perception belonging to the ear, but also to the body and the strange, distant territory of emotion.

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Shepherd, C. (2015) Sanctuary. [Photograph of installation]. Bristol

I got a feeling that I can’t shake. I’ve got a feeling that just wont go away. How those birds encircle the sky. The mists have parted and yesterday is here today.

There are many theories of listening, terms to help us understand how we listen, and the function of listening. Michele Chion proposes there are three main modes of listening. Chion’s three modes of listening are casual, semantic and reduced. Briefly, they cover listening to a sound in order to gather information about its cause or source (casual). Listening that which refers to a code or a language to interpret a message, such as the spoken language or Morse code (semantic) (Chion, 2012). Finally, listening that focuses on the traits of the sound itself, independent of its cause and of its meaning (reduced). Further, Professor of English in the University of Cambridge Steven Connor talks of sound, and the study of sound in his 2015 lecture, Acousmania.

Sound studies have not been pursued simply because there is sound, or because sound is just there. For many of those who pursue it, and who are pursued by it, the study of sound is part of a larger project or programme, which is aimed, not just at expanding what we know about sound, but changing the nature of knowledge about everything and the manner we have of acquiring it. Many of those who have made the most decisive contributions to the understanding of sound have done so on the basis of an intense idealisation of sound experience, and a kind of onerous dream, mad as it may seem.

(Connor, 2015)

So sound is at the heart of shaping the nature of knowledge. But to understand how sound shapes knowledge, we may want to think about the terms we have to identify sound, and it’s affect on perception, language and intellect. When we think about sound, and the sonic environment, it is useful to look back to the work of R. Murray Schaffer who conceptualised the term soundscape. He presents the term soundscape to refer to a combination of sounds that arise from an immersive environment. These sounds and experiences can be interpreted through the practice of acoustic ecology. In Schaffer’s meaning of the term, the soundscape specifically pays attention to natural acoustics of any given place (Wikepedia, 2016). However, it can also be argued, that the term has expanded to include other acoustic factors, including the soundscape of human activity, of culture and nature, and of the process of listening to an ecosystem of sounds in any given environment. Whatever type of environment is listened to, the term includes the listeners perception, and so carves open space to focus on subjectivity and interpretation of the affect of sound on individual and community. Listening is not simply a verb that describes doing, it can be argued that the process of listening shapes and contributes to discourse, and ways of knowing, as suggested by Connor above. It is an action individuals engage with as an act of subjective perception, and relation, but it is also a verb that shapes the act and method of thought, knowing and relation.

In some debates surrounding epistemology, ways of knowing, the act of listening is presented as a defiant act, one that counters a Western fixation with logic, and dominant rationality. Listening as a method of counteracting a dominant cultural fixation with metaphysical rationalism, is a means of addressing what Gemma Fiumara calls an “incomplete rationality” one that is “eloquent but deaf” (Fiumara, 1996, p. 60). In her book Fiumara argues that logocentricity has dominated western thought since enlightenment, and this in turn has created a “colonialisation of thought” (Fiumara, 1996, p. 54). The Western fixation on reduction and isolation of variables, components of life, is a product of a culture unable to listen, to ask perfectly formed and timed questions, and to hear the imbricated complexity of reality. Fiumara argues that the culture of logos has silenced the culture of listening. So we must ask ourselves, what is it to listen?

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Shepherd, C. (2015) Sanctuary. [Photograph of installation]. Bristol

Can you feel my heart beat? The lengths that we go to. The distance in your eyes.

Philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer proposes that to listen is to be “fundamentally open” (Gadamer, 2004). He continues to elaborate that without openness there can be no human relation. Herein lies the essence of the term relationship, to see the world through the eyes of another, must be done through listening and experiencing another perspective; meeting the other where they are at. Fiumara recognises a significant problem in her seminal book The Otherside of Language; a Philosophy of Listening (1990). She purports that in Western philosophy there is an obstinate attempt to ignore the relevance of listening in the construction of knowledge, and a failure of philosophical literature to address the neglect of the study of listening. She continues “in the dizzy affirmation of our logos there is hardly any logical space left for the hidden but essential tradition of listening” (Fiumara, 1990, p.26).

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Shepherd, C. (2015) Sanctuary. [Photograph of installation]. Bristol.

Chasing demons in the rain, dancing for hours, your hands exalt the pain. The monkey sees, all eyes and heart. Let the damn daybreak, these rainy days remind me of all we ever had.

So what is logocentricity and what is listening? Logocentricity stems from the Greek word logos, which means many things, but, it is agreed the meanings organise around terms such as discourse, speech and articulation. It refers to the process of reasoning and representation. It is a word that implies levels of linguistic achievement that surpasses practicality, one where conceptual notions are represented through linguistic codes, and articulated through the spoken and written word. The word is grounded in the use of language to articulate words that represent complex ideas. The ethos and act of logos, many argue has become the dominant means of communication and relation in the West, but with this comes the neglect of the process of listening. Fiumara advances the argument for a logos that integrates the act of listening and argues that to do this, the dominant cultural practice of logocentricity needs to be rethought (Fiumara, 1990). Before we continue to examine what listening means, and how it could pose a challenge to the dominance, and indeed violence of reductive reason, let us refer to Wittgenstein and his interpretation of the shortcomings of analysis; a central housemate of logos. “People who are constantly asking why are like tourists in front of a building reading Baedecker, and are so busy reading the history of its construction, etc., that they are prevented from seeing the building” (Wittgenstein, 1998). This can be equated to Fiumara’s observation that a fear to listen to the rich multiplicity of reality is linked to a deep fear that results in cultural tendency to reduce knowledge to specific and reduced principles from which nothing can escape. This in turn is applied to a range of disciplines that can be compared with a logical territorialisation of language, thought and indeed culture. To know is to be able to name, to order and to define. To know, is to read Baedecker like the tourists, instead of looking and interpreting one of many readings of any given building. So how do you know anything if you refuse the label, and listen to the whole instead of the unity? Before we become incarcerated by an oppressive logos, let us turn our ears towards the idea of listening as means of diluting the strength of reductive logic.

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Shepherd, C. (2015) Sanctuary. [Photograph of installation]. Bristol.

She cries with the dolphins. Monkey has a gift, he keeps sending back to you. Here comes the missionary with his small pots of food.

Fiumara suggests that the lack of listening playing out in hegemonic thought, is a crisis of values. She posits, that without space to listen, the success of Western reductive logic is akin to a machine running out of control, and perhaps raising alternative views, ecological thinking and systems theory along with the weeds. “The problem, therefore, is that of creating sufficient silence to allow ourselves at least to hear the incessant rumbling of our cultural world – a machinery of thought that seems to have lost its original vitality as a result of it’s enormous success” (Fiumara, 1990, p.25). Perhaps the inability to listen, to enter into complicated, contradictory and opposing discourse can take some responsibility for the political division we currently observe in the UK and USA. Part of the problem of the dominance of logos is that it presupposes fac et excusa (first do then justify) as a mainstay of epistemic operation. As Kant details in his political writings:

Seize any favourable opportunity of arbitrarily expropriating a right which the state enjoys over its own or over a neighbouring people; the justification can be presented far more easily and elegantly and the use of violence can be glossed over far more readily after the fact than if one were to think out convincing reasons in advance and then wait for counter arguments to be offered.

(Fiumara, 1990, p. 26 )

The key problem of logos is not really to do with a flawed method, this is not an argument against reason, but against its dominance in shaping discourse and dominant theories around epistemology. Reason is not obsolete, it has simply become over fed on the steroids of self-confidence, overbearing other means of knowing and episteme. The major critique Fiumara, Foucault and others make, is that the problem stems from a cultural expression of the internalised prowess of reason. However, such hubris quickly becomes hegemonic, and oppressive. It is also dangerous, as dominant thought shapes dominant discourse, thus leaving less space for diverse linguistics, ones that include and incorporate listening into language. As Foucault identified, knowledge and power are inter-related, and dominant modes of knowledge are often expressed as a form of power, and stifle and shape language and meaning, through societal and institutional discourse. Power and knowledge can limit what the individual can do in relation to others, but at the same time, redefining dominant modes of knowing, can also open up new ways of behaving and thinking about ourselves (Hook, 2007). As we identify the limits of logos, let us examine the benefits of listening, and what it indeed may have to offer in a world concerned with engendering human relation, instead of stifling relation through a way of thinking that intimidates and punishes those not equipped, able or interested in rational articulation.

In Fiumara’s view, listening is not an addition to language, but is the essence of it. However, she also acknowledges that listening has been overshadowed by philosophical pursuits more interested in textual analysis, interpretation and innovation. To question opens up more uncertainty, and doesn’t help pin set definitions and basic principles to help define and understand phenomenon. In Fiumara’s thinking, the benefit of listening is that it dilutes the defensive position, which has been used in Western thought to silence, disprove and dismiss oppositional ideas. For Fiumara, listening is key to achieving a more equal discourse between oppositional views.

It represents an uncompromising potentiality that prevents the adoption of a defensive position based on insufficient conditions; such as non dialogic conditions determine a general philosophical premise that is already in itself too abstract, devitalized, or at the very least, excessively limiting.

(Fiumara, 1990, p.30)

Listening has been thought of in other terms, and argued that attentive listening is key to comprehension and reasoning itself. Simply, the stillness and pace of listening as means of contemplation of comprehension has often been referred to as “a futile stance, that not even need surface in our culture” (Fiumara, 1990, p. 31). Heidegger pays homage to listening by describing the act of listening as a desire to pay “thoughtful attention to simple things” (Heidegger, 1985, p.65). To listen also relates to the mechanism of the question in the development of thought and knowledge, and indeed an intimate relationship with others. To listen is to receive and comprehend information, the best way to get there is to make space to ask questions. As Gadamer states “We shall have to consider in greater depth what is the essence of the question, if we are to clarify the particular nature of the hermeneutical experience” (Gadamer, 2004 p.326). So to listen is to assist with the process of interpretation, of multi faceted meaning and subjectivity. To understand the code of language, what is being referred to and to make space for multiple meanings in an intellectual world often concerned with defining territories of thought that render, through speech, rhetoric and reductionism; firm absolute terms of knowing. This debate between objective and subjective knowledge, and debates around what method, and subsequent language is used to further a dominant view of knowing and knowledge is not new. The reductionism / holism debate is a well established controversy that raises questions about the very nature of explanation itself, and has been taking place across a range of disciplines including psychology, economics, ethnography, sociology and the sciences for centuries (McLeod, 2008).

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Shepherd, C (2015). Random Shot. Bristol. 

And we search for the word on the waters edge. Would you say we came and left with what we had?

It is fair to wonder what the relevance of listening is today. We still exist in a culture that privileges thought (episteme) over practice (techne). Unfortunately this dominance means subjugates other forms of knowing, embodied cognition, emotional intelligence and non-linguistic communication such as the visual arts to the status of second-class citizens. We can see the presence of such narratives in the devaluing of the senses (Howes 2001) and their relegation to the impoverished world of physical labour, and in the historical academic dismissal of the arts as a means of knowledge generation (Bordstorrf 2006 and Nelson, 2013).

The relevance of listening as essential component of discourse and dialectics, as espoused by Fiumara is of significance to my research, but also society at large. My research is concerned with the affect of sound art on people, when situated in public space. While I remain interested in studying the affect of the content of the sound, and also the affect of sound on people as a medium. Central to my study is a study into the philosophy, function and phenomenon of listening, and it’s affect on perception, comprehension and human relationship. So it makes sense that I start to examine discursive and linguistic theories of the act of listening. Interestingly, through such research it becomes apparent that listening is not only a perceptive act, but also a highly political one. One that can carve open new space to reconsider the dominant habit of speech and reductive logic as a means of defining objective truth, through an often overpowering process of fac et excusa.

Secondly, the significance of active listening, is entirely practical in relational terms. The recent social division that has played out through the Brexit vote and the US presidential election has seen oppositional views come head to head. In the UK, the vote to remain or leave fell at 48.1% to remain and 51.9% to leave (Bloomberg, 2016), meanwhile the electoral vote was Trump, 306, Clinton 232 (Graphiq, 2016). The social response to such a binary and closed choice, is accelerated social division motivated by fear, ignorance and a desire to force the opposition into the position of idiot or wrongdoing. What we can see here, is an acting out of the linguistic violence and oppression that Fiumara and Foucault speak of, and one that is normalised through the oppositional dialectic that is set up on the premise of dominance. If we ask the question, how are the oppositional camps to understand each other, but also understand what misunderstanding is incited through conflicting political decision making processes, the answer initially lies somewhere in the presence of the question. Who are we asking what, and how. Perhaps the closing thought is, that to spend time thinking about the act of listening is both an act of transformation; to listen is to engage in a more equal discourse, but simultaneously challenge the limitations of logocentricity and knowing afforded through a limited set of rules. Such radical intervention could be compared to Stuart Hall’s definition of culture as a “critical site of social action and intervention, where power relations are both established and potentially unsettled” (Proctor, 2004, p. 4).

With this understanding of culture in mind, everything we do is a site of political and cultural expression, so the act of listening itself presents an active gesture of resistance. Listening is more than an act of resistance against reductive reasoning, but also a proactive pursuit of social cohesion at worst, and at best the site for detailed discourse that may well generate less extreme views, delivering a more tolerant and accepting means of communicating, in pursuit of diverse, and co existing cross cultural relations.

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