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The Journal of Sonic Studies

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Journal of Sonic Studies, volume 2, nr. 1 (May 2012)

ETHICS OF LISTENING

Salomé Voegelin


Recently, I was away, in another country. It looked and sounded not unlike this one, with streets, trees, houses, people and their dogs. The people had eyes, ears and mouths, just like us. They looked, listened and spoke. But since I could not recognise what I heard in the acoustic environment around me from the way they talked about it, I had to assume that they heard it all very differently.

 

Instead of considering the source or quality of a sound, its location and distance or even its reason, they spoke in terms of action only. Theirs was not a discussion of ‘what was being done’, but was a ‘being done’, doing, always now, without defining a doing subject nor arriving at a resulting object. They did not comment on what made a specific sound, but spoke making the sound. Their words phrased the particular and focused narration of doing heard, becoming another heard doing. The understanding reached did not substantiate nor position the heard, instead it beckoned movement; sonic gestures held momentarily and precariously in my ears as an idea of the heard, whose source had by that time become irrelevant, and whose destination was my own sound, which in turn did not translate the heard but became another sonic thing altogether - the semantic substance of doing conveyed to my listener.

 

It was all, at least at first, greatly confusing. I was at sea in the midst of movement without form and could not anchor my thoughts in the steady container of the object but, instead, had to let them pass continually in the formless shape of sound. There was no pinning down, no transference, no hold, just the roller-coaster of changing shapes whose materiality was their contingent possibility - propositions hinted at, played with, produced and destroyed.

 

On enquiring I found out that it was not that they were not aware of the objects around them, but that these things were not important in terms of their material form, their objectness, but only in relation to the doing they did - the possibilities through which they suggested themselves - and the people were also, just like these doing things, their own doing - fluid possibilities rather than fixed identities. This might seem at first discriminating against those who did or could not do much, but this is not so, as their notion of doing has nothing to do with doing much or doing worthy, purposeful or gainful things. It is simply doing understood as the process of being, not exclusively human being, but being in general, as the condition and process of existence in time, leaving room for manifold possible subjectivities and objectivities to emerge as contingent propositions.

 

Being in doing is unsettling; it perverts the preconception of the object and the prejudgment of the subject as a stable identity. The being as doing foregrounds existence in general, ignoring whether the being is an object or a subject; and it comes to meaning from this non-distinct equivalence, through its process rather than as an entity. At the same time it challenges the notion of doing as inherently better than being, as it is being, but being not as object but as thing, thinging existence continually, fluidly, in passing. The object as thing is an activity, it is to do: being as the production of possibilities rather than the appearance of totality.

 

The material of this world, while seen and heard by me in the same way as that of my world back home, is clearly appreciated in an entirely different way by the indigenous population. And so it is different: its materiality, its status and what it could do and enable in terms of understanding, imagination and purpose is very different. The resulting consideration of reality and value is completely different, and so, while from the outside this world looks and sounds just like ours, the thinking that manifests the invisible layers of its processes and results in the sense of actuality and morality lived by, is very different indeed. The notion of existence as doing means that what is seen is the motion, the present process of being, not its material totality nor the conglomeration of past occurrences and achievements. This focus on process privileges and is privileged by the ear, which steers the eye away from the material onto its thinging: onto the possibilities proposed by the thing as an object existing in time.

 

It is difficult to imagine, harder to describe, but I came to understand that what their eyes see is unfocused movement. A bit like what is produced by a photograph taken on a slow shutter speed, they see indistinct motion that is given definition and meaning by sound. But this definition is not concerned with size, location, outline or distance, but is the sense of its possibility: what it proposes to be at this moment in time, producing its own contingent situation. This auditory process is not concerned with sizing up, with ordering the heard into a hierarchy of use, value and identity, nor of placing it into a pre-given space. Rather, listening rephrases definition as a contingent activity of defining: continually drawing the thing as the fragile gesture of what it could be rather than representing what it appears to be. This ‘listening drawing’ depends on one’s simultaneity with the heard; no meta-narrative can make it sound, and it makes apparent the complex demand of being in time as a doing thing equivalent to the thing heard doing. The object and the subject as sonic things move past each other, simultaneously and equivalently, defining each other as one contingent possibility of all they could be. In this fluid weave the responsibility of perception lies in the moment of listening rather than in the location of the heard.

 

From these observations I came to appreciate that their sense of the world is derived from the acoustic environment heard as a complex equivalence of objects and subjects, as things in simultaneous motion that are drawn temporarily as contingent illuminations of out-of-focus visuals by sound. These ‘sound images’ show not what these objects and subjects are per se, as a priori, but propose and hint at all they could possibly be. They are mirrors that show one possibility as a contingent actuality and reflect the speaker as a sonic subject in the corner of its glare. Sound exposes the vague image in temporal flashes of clarity to the listeners, who themselves are part of this circle of illumination, but not necessarily at the centre of it. They are caught as just one other constituent in the possibility of the moment.

 

It is the fleeting articulation of those possibilities in language that produces their contingent actuality. This is a language based on the coincidence of personal speech, formless and passing, rather than on the infrastructure of individual exchange, which is lexical and pre-formed. The utterances produced to interpret and share such a personal sense of one’s surroundings rely heavily on verbs able to capture an existence in flow. Therefore, in the vocabulary of that world, things are verbs - doings. The verb determines the utterance and takes centre stage. It expresses not the sound of the thing but the sound of the doing of the thing that has long changed the shape of the thing doing so. Thus, their predicate sits in the place of our noun, our substantive, and holds the power of the grammatical subject: governing the time of the sentence.

 

In this cultural context the eye is secondary to the ear. The eye makes out the trace, the blurred outline of the motion that hearing reflects upon and unfolds in its mobile particularity.

 

Consequently, nouns are scarcely present in their language. The only ones I did hear while there were abstract ones, such as faith, doubt, fear, happiness, etc. There are also, as a result, no definite and indefinite articles, no “an” and “the”, and no pronouns either; even the infinitive is rarely used, as it is considered the freewheeling, unethical part of doing that neither does nor is, but is action suspended, hanging about without the commitment to participate.

 

Without nouns and infinitives nothing is in stasis, but is always what it does, different all the time. The subject too is a verb: I myself am not still, but a fluent substance. My self is a shape-shifting thing, a vague thinging that attains definition through its own sound that as words seek the coincidence of the ‘sound image’ to reflect me and you in the same moment.

 

The subject and the object are registered in the circumstance of their encounter in one ‘sound image’, autonomous but intertwined in its reflection from whose glare language draws its conversation, personally and tenuously. Everything and everybody is their own immediate shape, shaping themselves in the proposition of their temporary being. This is exhausting, as it demands constant new orientation, constant renegotiation, and the acceptance that any understanding reached is nevertheless solidly participle. The speaking subject is itself but a passing shape with no particular hold over other autonomous things’ thinging, save the capacity to talk about them. The human subject is not central to being; it is incidental, caught up in the same fluid stream of existence, production and destruction, rather than inhabiting a privileged or fixed position. The listening “I” is not at a distance from the proceedings, and not in the middle either, but is part of it, another autonomous substance that sounds with others and in whose simultaneity it comes to its own temporal form: formless and passing. A language of verbs and adverbs, intent on conveying formless forms, rather than on the representation of objects as nouns and adjectives, captures the paradox of this autonomous intertwinement and gives the subject a means to ‘speak about’ without dominating the ‘spoken of’.[1]

 

Verbs and adverbs transform the linguistic landscape; nobody owns the action, the sound only draws it from all there is to sound.

 

Forcibly, the fragility of existence as a formless thing lived out in simultaneous-autonomy with other shape-shifting things makes social relations so much more dependent on our willingness to participate in the contingent encounter; to produce in language fleeting understandings rather than assumed meanings. Thus, hierarchies of power as well as political associations and identification cannot be assumed nor sustained. They are produced on the spot and abandoned again to the flow of sound. The politics of listening blurs single visions into multiple motions whose definition needs to be drawn and negotiated as the particularity of the heard, again and again.

 

Without nouns, rhetoric is impossible; positioning, jostling for power and grasping control are precluded as they aim towards a solidity that cannot be heard.

 

This is not anti-materialist, nor is it an anti-realist; rather it suggests a temporal materialism, a sonic materialism, and a sonic realism: a materialism that acknowledges the substance of objects as temporal processes, autonomous from human intervention and perception, but which become real for the subject through his/her temporal process of being substance simultaneously with other substances. It is also not entirely anti-theological, as it does not deny the responsibility of the subject; it only cuts its privilege.

 

While the language of my host, in its focus on the doing of the verb, expresses this equivalent and simultaneous process of being, our language is a representative plane, grounded upon nouns and adjectives to produce a distinction between the subject and the object that it seeks to evaluate and put in its place. Consequently, our ethics aims at a putting-in-place and is based upon pre-given rules and values; commandments imposed on one presumed actuality, without consideration for possibilities.

 

By contrast, drawing the heard as possibilities rather than as one actuality, demands an ethics of participation: an ethics that guides the contingent encounter of the heard and frames the proposition produced. It is an ethics that is engaged and respects equivalence at the same time as it is aware of a potentially unbreachable autonomy of each and every thing. In this visually unfocused, auditorily precise simultaneity, ethics is not about authority and ideology but about negotiation and process and how that can be achieved. There is no right or wrong that precedes the interaction; the right or wrong is worked out in the interaction, contingently from the thing and the subject towards their shared sphere, and it is only valid temporarily in relation to that interaction. Ethical listening in that sense describes the responsibility of participating in the motion of the heard: to draw its meaning contingently, and to pass it on in one’s own sound as personal speech. It is an ethics of the self, of subjectivity, as much as of the world, of objectivity, as in effect the two become intertwined within its participatory framework, depending on each other for a definition in faint pencil marks.

 

This demand for participation challenged my notion of self, the absoluteness of my self, my self-certainty vis-à-vis the material world, as well as my ideas on the manner and purpose of any interaction. Our language, based on nouns, restored my clarity and identity by re-establishing the distinction between object and subject. Theirs, based on verbs, left me drifting in momentary connections and negotiations in which I remain indistinct motion, ill at ease, unless I accept the challenge of a participating subjectivity that exists as contingent possibilities rather than stable actualities.

 

My hosts laughed at me when I talked to them of my exhaustion trying to see and hear the world their way. They mocked my desire to place myself, my fears of getting lost, my need to dominate the object to know myself. They exclaimed how difficult it must be to have the eye, rather than roaming freely, captured by the immobile object, to be thrust up against it all the time, to feel the need to position oneself against another form rather than enjoy shared formlessness. They felt it must be such a burden to own things, to either have them or want them, when you could just partake in their existence with you.

 

Their mocking of my normative perception reminded me of how I am beholden to my gaze, how I am trapped in my own view. It is not the object gazed at but the gazer who is caught in the headlights of the thing he/she is staring at.

 

Our language, the manifestation of our values, distances us from the processes of things, and of ourselves as being things, in the fixity of a moment assumed as the generality of time. Nouns and adjectives disable the motioned vision of the verb. They give the “I” a privileged position in the sentence, which allows us to dictate the thing as object, to position it, to value it, independent of its own processes and substance. As I name the material, it bends towards me and becomes anthropomorphic - a material for me, losing the possibilities its formless sound might be hinting at.

 

Sonic materialism, by contrast, focuses on the autonomy of the thing and the negotiation of that autonomy in the contingent encounter of listening. However, it is not so much about freeing the object as it is about freeing the subject from the pressures of an a priori actuality. It invites us to ignore our belief in a visual acuity that prevents us from appreciating the possibilities hinted at in the invisible movement of the thing and the self in sound.

 

These vague thoughts became clear to me when taking off my glasses: the world gets temporarily out of focus; blurred, it loses definition and the demand to be defined. Instead, sound can produce it as possibilities: inventing a sonic reality, a sonic possible world, in my short-sighted gaze. And now I know that there is at least one other, if not many other worlds that might look and sound the same as this one, but mean so very differently.

Note


1. In Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art (Continuum 2010), I develop the suggestion that the perceptual impetus is the agency that generates the reality and materiality of the object and the subject perceived. With the idea, developed here, of an autonomy and simultaneity of being that entwines the subject with the object without affording the subject a privileged position over the object, I am not negating the perceptual impetus and agency developed in that earlier text, but I am clarifying the idea that it is the subject that is being generated, expanded and changed in his/her perceptual agency rather than the object or subject perceived. Thus, while the sound is a trigger for a generative perception, it is the reality and materiality of the listener, not of the heard, that is being generated in the process of listening.


Salomé Voegelin is a Reader in Sound Arts and course director of the MA Sound Arts at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. She is the author of Listening to Noise and Silence: towards a Philosophy of Sound Art, Continuum, NY, 2010. Other writing includes an article on Morton Feldman in the Wire 324, February 2011, and a chapter in the forthcoming book Magic Spaces - 25 years of Kunstradio ORF. Her blog http://www.soundwords.tumblr.com writes the experience of listening to the everyday. She is the curator of http://www.clickanywhere.crisap.org and some of her own work has recently been shown in 'Being Honeyed – An exhibition of Sound(in)Art' at Soma Contemporary in Ireland.