~ n o t e s o n ~ Jean-Luc Nancy, Listening, trans. Charlotte Mandell (NY: Fordham UP, 2007), isbn: 9780823227730.
Lithograph: Pol Bury, “Sculptures à cordes,” 1973-74, Derrière le Miroir 209.
Jean-Luc Nancy’s Listening is a phenomenological inquiry into listening; its prompt: “Is listening something of which philosophy is capable?” (1).
Philosophy has long privileged the sense of sight over all other senses. Nancy identifies this especially from Kant to Heidegger, the phenomenological privilege of presence, but it can also be seen from Plato’s many connections between the sun and truth, light and illumination by reason, on the ostensive reliance that seeing is believing, etc.. Further, philosophy tends to privilege hearing over listening: “hasn’t philosophy superimposed upon listening, beforehand and of necessity, or else substituted for listening, something else that might be more on the order of understanding” (1)—that is, we connect hearing to understanding so that to hear signifies to hear the sense of something, that is, to grasp the meaning, like we may idiomatically say ‘I hear you’ to mean ‘I understand what you mean.’ Philosophy’s tendency to knowledge, to having it (versus the less intentional activity of wisdom as a knowing what one does not, which is more akin to listening), leads to the question:
“Isn’t the philosopher someone who always hears (and hears everything), but who cannot listen, or who, more precisely, neutralizes listening within himself, so that he can philosophize?” (1).
While the English translation obscures the blatancy of the derivations of “understanding,” “entente,” and “listening,” “écoute,” from “entendre,” “to hear, to understand,” the questions clearly take aim at phenomenology’s well-noted, excessive reliance on sight, from the light of reason to presencing of beings. * Philosophy’s habitual slip to understanding privileges sense as meaning, neglects the sensory, but, Nancy asks, granting truth’s revealing and concealing nature, isn’t sound—transitory by nature—richer for thinking it? Listening, for Nancy, is established as being “inclined toward the opening of meaning,” a straining toward the self, wherein one enters into a tension and looks out to a relationship with the self (27). Listening to sound is straining for possible meaning: “straining toward a possible meaning, and consequently one that is not immediately accessible” (6, cf., 1-16). As we define meaning as reference, reference as comprising a totality of referrals, so too can we define sound, and thereby better cast it as re-sounding. This shared space of meaning and sound is the site of the self—itself “nothing other than a form or function of referral,” infinite relations of the perceptible and intelligible, hence, neither static nor substantial, but a tense flux wherein one is always approaching oneself. The approach is neither through the gaze nor mimesis, which reduce one to object, but through listening as methexic, participatory, sharing referring and feeling back to the self that is neither available nor present (8, cf., 7-10). Straining ruptures the “sonorous event” of the self so it can “take place” in rhythmic coming and passing, extending and penetrating, entering what opens up within, around, from, and to the self as a complex of returns bound as resonance (14, cf., 12-19). In the mutual openings to and of resonance, the listener strains to an end in or exposure to sense, which opens in silence, and reveals one’s relation to be to meaning beyond signification (cf., 25-7). But this account, Nancy claims, is so far nothing more than a radicalization of phenomenology.
* Heidegger agrees: “the tradition of philosophy has been primarily oriented from the beginning toward ‘seeing’ as the mode of access to beings and to being,” and admits, “Of course, every ‘sense’ does this within its genuine realm of discovery. … [But] To preserve the connection, one can formalize sight and seeing to the point of gaining a universal term which characterizes every access as access whatsoever to beings and to being” (Heidegger, Being and Time, Op. Cit., 147). And his reliance is clear: Being and Time’s phenomenology is defined as a making manifest of the self-showing; Da-sein’s study begins with its very givenness, its being-there, its presence in the world; one of its essential structures, understanding, is disclosure, Aletheia, defined as unconcealment, or the appearing of things to us in the world as a means of opening intelligibility; hearing in his later writings is described as seeing presence, clearing becomes a place wherein Aletheia grants presence, thinking becomes an apprehending of the presencing of being (Cf., esp., Ibid., 28 and 32; §5 ff.; §31; Heidegger, “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” Op. Cit., 68—respectively).
An outline to this first section can be suggested by the following four questions:
1) What are listening and hearing and what is their relation to understanding and meaning/sense? (pp.1-6)
“Why, in the case of the ear, is there withdrawal and turning inward, a making resonant, but, in the case of the eye, there is manifestation and display, a making evident?” (3).
“Why, however, does each of these facets [resonant and evident] also touch the other, and by touching, put into play the whole system of the senses?” (3).
“… shouldn’t truth ‘itself,’ as transitivity and incessant transition of a continual coming and going, be listened to rather than seen?” (4)
“What does it mean for a being to be immersed entirely in listening, formed by listening or in listening, listening with all his being?” (4)
“What secret is at stake when one truly listens, that is when one tries to capture or surprise the sonority rather than the message?” (5).
“What does to be listening, to be all ears, as one would say ‘to be in the world,’ mean? What does it mean to exist according to listening, for it and through it, what part of experience and truth is put into play?” (5).
Explain: “… in all saying (and I mean in all discourse, in the whole chain of meaning) there is hearing, and in hearing itself, at the very bottom of it, a listening” (6).
Explain: “If ‘to hear’ is to understand the sense … to listen is to be straining toward a possible meaning, and consequently one that is not immediately accessible” (6).
2) How do meaning and sound relate to the subject/self? (pp.7-12)
“But what can be the shared space of meaning and sound? [Explain how] Meaning consists in a reference … Sound is also made of referrals …” (7)
How is: “To be listening is thus to enter into tension and to be on the lookout for a relation to self …” (12)
3) What are the presence and rhythm of listening? (pp.13-17)
Explain: “[listening’s presence is] a coming and a passing, an extending and a penetrating” (13).
Explain how: “rhythm separates the succession of linearity of the sequence or length of time: it bends time to give it to time itself, and it is in this way that it folds and unfolds a ‘self’” (17).
4) How is the listening subject not the phenomenological subject? (pp.18-22)
Explain melody for Husserl’s phenomenology (18).
Explain living present and what it obscures (19).
Why is music not a phenomenon (20)?
How/Why is “the subject of listening … always still yet to come, spaced, traversed, and called by itself, sounded by itself …” (21)?
“rhythm separates the succession of linearity of the sequence or length of time:
it bends time to give it to time itself, and it is in this way that it folds and unfolds a ‘self’”
(Jean-Luc Nancy, Listening, 17).
Image: Pierre Fernandez Arman, "Violents Violin II," 1978, seriograph
“Interlude: Mute Music,” pp.23-46:
Opens by moving from signification (X signifies Y) to sounding (23ff):
How do pp.23-25 enact a movement away from signification to sounding?
Listening opens; Musical listening (25ff):
At the bottom of p.25, Nancy offers a recap of thesis so far; rephrase this in a brief statement in your own words/understanding.
What is musical listening (26-7)?
Beyond saying is meaning without signification (28, 28-30):
How do you understand such a ‘meaning’ that is beyond a ‘saying’, notably, that is beyond signification and beyond an intention?
Alterity (otherness) (29) Hence, transcendental possibility (the possibility of X) (29ff):
How does otherness lead to the assertion that for sense to be possible, resonance must be possible?
What is sense?
Aims: possibility; body; subject (31) So, what does listening beyond signification mean? (31):
Three insights (p.31) lead to a new question: what is ‘listening to beyond meaning’ when the end or aim is not signification? How do you understand these three insights?
Listening: “… listening is listening to something other than sense in its signifying sense” (32)—hence, listening is not the same activity like narrating a story’s meaning (e.g., “These are operas without words, they say what the words don’t say” (33)):
This activity might be easier to understand if one thinks about examples like a propaganda poster versus an abstract expressionist painting or song with lyrics versus an instrumental piece; however, it should be an activity we could even do to the propaganda poster and song with lyrics … so, pick any example of a work of art and describe (A) its signifying sense; and (B) its non-signifying sense.
Syntax without semantics (34):
An example of “reading narrative” in music is by semantic syntax: think of how grammatical rules structure language (subject/predicate, conjunctions, punctuation, etc.), and thereby guide your understanding of what it means. Music can have an analogous syntax. Irrespective of your compositional knowledge, think about any general experience with music: what features can you find in music that strike you as akin to linguistic syntax?
Just like there are uses of language that defy syntax (avant garde, stream of consciousness, experimental writing; eschew punctuation, caps., or connecting words, etc.), there is also music that defies syntax: what might a piece of music be or do that challenges or avoids syntax?
Writing and Speaking (36ff) Speaking: Timbre and Rhythm (36ff) Rhythm (36ff):
Nancy cites how the canon has proposed that rhythm expresses ethos, the expression of a bearing, character, spirit, or behavior of someone, something, or some time (e.g., the Flappers embodied the ethos of the 1920’s). How do you understand this, and do you agree?
Nancy proposes that rhythm forms something of and in time—resonant throbbing, seeking, calling—and that this is the subject (self, the I, you, listener) (38-9). Explain? Agree?
Nancy proposes that timbre is the precondition for resonance and the reality of music (39-40), thus, that “timbre is communication of the incommunicable” (41). Explain? Agree?
“March in Spirit in our Ranks,” pp.49-59
(1) Totalitarianism (esp. Nazism) benefited from “a certain musical disposition” and “a certain new condition … of dance and of architecture” (50). “Music, dance, architecture … [are] arts of expansion … expansion [is] the opening of a wide space of exaltation, of highlighting and dramatizing. … [e.g.,] outpouring, overflowing, dilation and sublimation, the propagation of subjectivity,” and, such expansion “always harbors the most formidable of ambiguities” (51).
How can music, dance, and architecture be thought of as arts of expansion, of arts that aim and succeed best at inspiring exaltation (adoration, exhilaration, rapture)? Do you agree? Why? Why not? What do you think it means to say that exaltation breeds subjectivity? Do you agree that it does? How could exalting arts harbor something dangerous?
(2) “Music harbors a force of communication and participation that all forms of secular, religious, or aesthetic power … have not failed to recognize” (52, also cf. 54).
How would you understand and describe this force? Do you agree that power (“the man,” whomever that may be) has always “recognized”—that is, used for itself and against us—this force? Any examples?
(3) Nancy then argues that beyond the force of music, there is a new role or aspect of it in the 20th-21st c.: we project or implant into the heart and expression of music (maybe all arts) an energy or power that is detached from its (their) form and representational technique (52-3).
In other words, he is suggesting that we traditionally connected the power of music/arts to (a) matters of their form (structure, use of harmonic order, arrangement, shape, etc.) and (b) matters of their technique (as best representing X, as capturing the ‘reality’ of Y, of exactness, etc.); but, now, we also presume music to have a power that has nothing to do with what it is or how it does what it does (i.e., nothing about how perfect the arrangement or how genuinely it expressed the sound of birds or the idea of love).
Do you think that there is some third feature of power in music/arts like this? What do you think this power is or would be like?
(4) Nancy calls our contemporary times the “age of subjectivity,” i.e., “the age when every reference necessarily became a return to self and in self, the service of self to an entity essentially endowed with the power of self-reference: subject, conscience, identity, people, mind, living body, embodied force, will in action” (52).
What is he saying about our age? How would you describe this attitude or ethos? Do you think it is accurate?
(5) Nancy argues that when we added this new idea of power to music/arts, we shifted to a paradigm that no longer thought about the meaning of music/arts in terms of reason (i.e., arts help us understand things, show truths, give instructions to life, thought, etc.), but in terms of desire (i.e., about expression of deeply intimate inexpressibles) (53).
Give/invent an example of a work of art whose meaning is something we grasp rationally. Give/invent an example of a work of art whose meaning is something we grasp passionally. What do you think the consequences might be from such a shift of how we think about art (what it is, does, means)?
(6) For Nancy, the way we understand art now is important to think about for two reasons:
First: because of our historical tendency to fascism … which means our view is dangerous because it is like “a summons to the most profound and ineffable interiority, to ‘sentiment’ itself understood as collective and unique to a defined community” (55), and,
Second: because that connection between fascism and the ‘summons’ that defined us as an unique community experienced a break or perversion wherein it became not that what defined us was captured in music, but that the music imposed upon us a definition and experience (55-56).
How would you describe ‘finding yourself defined’ in music? How would you describe finding yourself ‘being defined’ by music? How could these relationships to the power of music be dangerous?
(7) Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Goebbels, wrote: “Art is nothing other than what shapes feeling. It comes from feeling and not from intelligence. The artist is nothing but one who gives direction to this feeling” (56).
Evaluate this claim. How/why do you agree or disagree?
(8) Nancy argues that this claim that “music must give direction to collectivity” (56) adds to music a finality (a goal or aim or purpose) that it does not itself have (i.e., we impose this goal on it). And, when we do so, we then interpret the meaning of music to be derived from the how and what of signification (i.e., music played in a factory signifies an ethos of becoming valiant Teutonic knights: what the music means is that ‘becoming’).
Do you think we impose this goal on music, thereby making its meaning tied to this goal? Is it right or wrong to do this? When could it be good or bad to do this?
(9) Nancy continues the argument to claim that it is a betrayal of music to make it mean instead of sense; to tie music to understanding instead of listening (57).
How would you argue he is right, this is a betrayal? How would you argue he is wrong, this is not a betrayal? Do you think we do wrong to music by tying it to understanding?
(10) Nancy determines the consequence of our imposition of understanding on music (as if it was a purpose of music itself) to be the obliteration of an “insurmountable and necessary—even desirable--distance between sound and sense” (58).
What does this mean: a distance between sound and sense? How does our imposition destroy this distance? Do you agree that it destroys the distance? Do you think we should destroy or preserve this distance? Why?
“How Music Listens to Itself,” pp.63-67 (with reference to the whole):
Hearing, Listening, and their Combination:
“If ‘to hear’ is to understand the sense … to listen is to be straining toward a possible meaning, and consequently one that is not immediately accessible” (p.6).
“If someone listens to music without knowing anything about it … without being capable of interpreting it, is it possible that he is actually listening to it, rather than being reduced to hearing it?” (p.63).
Answer and elaborate on what your answer might then mean.
ASKED OTHERWISE … “… is it possible that the listening can go beyond an immediate apprehension of emotional impulses, movements, and resonances confusedly dependent on acquired habits regarding rhythm and tonality …?” (p.63).
Recall the ‘epoché’ as the bracketing of all biases that shifts one from a ‘natural attitude’ to a ‘phenomenological attitude’. Can one do this to hearing and thereby listen wholly free from bias?
Could one listening go beyond something like pure sonorous experience to “think” in a way unlike normal “understanding of signification” (X means Y)—i.e., is such a “thinking” possible? What would it be like, or how could we describe this sort of “thinking” (regardless of its possibility)?
What is Music / Musical Listening?
“… musical listening allows one to link sensuous apprehension [i.e., listening] to analysis of composition and execution [i.e., hearing]. … [it] can consist only in a correct combination of the two approaches or two dispositions, the compositional and the sensory. … How are the musicianly [i.e., hearing] and the musical [i.e., listening] shared or intermingled?” (pp.63-4).
What does Nancy propose as to how they are linked (pp.63-65)? Do you agree or disagree? Why?
HOWEVER … UNLIKE THE SIMILAR LINKS IN COMPOSITION/PERFORMANCE & ALL ARTS ...
“What distinguishes music, however, is that composition, in itself, and the procedures of joining together never stop anticipating their own development and keep us waiting in some way for the result … of their order, their calculations, their (musico)logic” (p.66).
SAID OTHERWISE …
“… music … never stops exposing the present to the imminence of a deferred presence, one that is more ‘to come’ than any ‘future’. A presence that is not future, but merely promised, merely present because of its announcement, its prophecy in the instant” (p.66).
What do these two quotes mean? How would you describe it in your own terms? Do you agree or disagree? Why?
“It is a question of hope. … Music is the art of the hope for resonance …” (pp.66-67)
How is it so? Why is it so? What does this mean?
AND, THUS, FINALLY …
“It is not a hearer, then, who listens, and it matters little whether or not he is musical. Listening is musical when it is music that listens to itself” (p.67).
But … if musical listening “can consist only in a correct combination of” listening and hearing, what does he mean by saying this? (See quotes below to (maybe?) help answer this …?)
NOTE THAT …
“At every instant music promises its development only in order the better to hold and open the instant … outside of development, in a singular coincidence of movement and suspense” (p.66).
WHILE ABOUT MUSIC, THIS RECALLS AN OPENING OF THE LISTENER ... “To listen is to enter that spatiality by which, at the same time, I am penetrated, for it opens up in me as well as around me, and from me as well as toward me: it opens me inside me as well as outside, and it is through such … opening that a ‘self’ can take place. … listening takes place at the same time as the sonorous event …” (p.14).
WHICH REMINDS US THAT …
“… music … is not exactly a phenomenon”—it is not some-thing, something that comes to presence or is manifested; instead, it is an “evocation”—it “summons … presence to itself” (p.20).
“… the subject of listening is always still yet to come. … he is not a philosophical subject, and, finally, he is perhaps no subject at all, except as the place of resonance …” (pp.21-22).
(9 rephrased, or 10) What might the quote from p.67 mean?
Listening to sound is ... : “straining toward a possible meaning, and consequently one that is not immediately accessible” (Nancy, Listening, 6).