Friday, May 18, 2018

Thinking about listening and seeing

For more than five years, now, my central project has been a radio show and podcast. And my main book project recently morphed into something that aims to talk about listening in a thoughtful, political, grassroots way. Despite this, and despite being the son and brother of musicians, my way of engaging with the world is really more visual than aural. Audio-related work is not a particularly obvious fit for me, but somehow it has become a significant part of what I do. With that in mind, it has been interesting, lately, to be reading an essay collection called Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole.

I had fallen into a rut of reading nonfiction mostly for its content rather than for its writing, and called on Facebook for recommendations of nonfiction with delightful, moving, writerly writing, regardless of its subject. Cole's name was one response. He writes about a few different kinds of things, but one preoccupation is photography, as informed by a vast knowledge of art history. Despite claiming an affinity for the visual above, I don't really know much about photography or art – I enjoy images, moving and still, but feel much more competent analyzing and creating things that are written. So apart from the delight of encountering Cole's writing, this book has also been interesting for me because it involves such close reading of and deep thinking related to the visual, even as my own writing is currently very focused on exploring things aural. And it is interesting because one of the things that I need to think through in my current work is exactly what the material specificity of different ways of engaging the world means for a book organized in part around "listening."

I'm already quite clear that I mean "listening" in a very expansive sense. I want to draw metaphorically from listening as we conventionally think of it (in a way analogous to how lots of theorizing draws from the visual, but with the intent to subvert that) while thinking about responsive engagement in a way not dependent on sense X or medium Y. I have some awareness of how easy it would be to fall into ableism, and reading and thinking about that is very much part of my process. At the very least, I know not to assume that all bodies communicate in the same way, or that any one approach should be treated as normative. I'm also well aware that the material specificity of different modes of listening/speaking really do matter. Texting and an in-person vocal conversation and sign-language over Skype are quite different modes of relating, at least in some respects. I'm less clear on how those specificities matter and on how to draw on them to talk about the kinds of things that I want to talk about, but it's something I'm actively thinking about.

There's one specific thing that reading this book by Teju Cole, and particularly its essays on photography, has helped me with. That is, when I think about the materiality of engaging with the world through what I see versus what I hear – you might, awkwardly, use the language of eye-listening versus ear-listening – one difference seems to be that eye-listening more easily falls into relating to what is seen as object to be consumed, whereas ear-listening seems to do more to force you to engage with others as agents, as expressers of opinions, producers of knowledge, deciders. So often, the visual seems to be about power-over – surveillance, a la the panopticon, or otherwise deriving pleasure (much media) or knowledge (much academia) from an Other whose voice is treated as irrelevant or nonexistent. At the very least, with the aural, whatever other power relations are at play, that voice is present and is the basis for engagement. The fact that the Other (or even just the other) speaks is part of the premise of the interaction. Yes, there is consumptive listening, objectifying listening, listening that denies personhood. But because voice is how the interaction happens, it seems like that is a violence that requires more work, more active denial of personhood, in the moment.

I'm not sure what I actually think about this distinction – I'm still reflecting on it. As well, obviously, all of this is grounded in the experience of someone whose interpersonal commnication, at least when not text-mediated, is done primarily with voice and ears, not with hands and eyes. So already I know to treat this as specific, not universal.

In doing this thinking, it has been useful to encounter Cole's detailed examination of specific photographs and the work of particular photographers. He demonstrates a mode of eye-listening, even beyond direct interpersonal communication, which foregrounds people and our activities and our agency in engaging with the visual. Images, as he reads them, are not just sources of pleasure or knowledge, but are expressions of human practices and agency and self. It is, I guess, a way of listening to the visual that pushes back against reification, objectification.

One of the things that I think I want to do with listening as a way of framing our engagement with other people and with the world is to push back against the dominant, consumptive, reifying ways we're taught to engage. Part of that will probably mean using the frame of listening to unsettle assumptions and practices associated, in dominant understandings, with the visual. But Cole's work is a reminder that this association with the visual is not an essential one that can only be resisted by turning to other senses or media, but one that is constructed and learned, and that can also very much be resisted on the terrain of what we see.

Which is perhaps an obvious point, and certainly those whose primary communication is through the visual would not need it, but for me it was a useful and unexpected new avenue into some of the things that I've been thinking about.

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