Sadistic Listening

Listening has a very good reputation. We seem thoroughly persuaded that looking is active while listening is passive. So looking is always liable to become a violating, objectifying and diminishing action, while listening is thought of not only as harmless but as positively nurturing and concernful. Looking is full of the violent certainty that distance gives, according to Salomé Voegelin, while listening is full of the gentle, tactful hesitation that comes from being in a condition of ‘involved participation’ with its subject. To be listened to is not just to be given the chance to identify yourself, it is to be allowed the essential openness that Jean-Luc Nancy sees as constitutive of the resonant subject: ‘While the subject of the target is always already given, posed in itself to its point of view, the subject of listening is always still yet to come, spaced, traversed, and called by itself, sounded by itself’.

Typically, of course, being a good listener has been thought of as female, the assumption being that women, deprived of the authority of the voice, have become delicately expert in the more passive and pacific arts of the ear. Sentire is sensitivity itself. People are kept ‘under observation’ rather than ‘under audition’. The sign that an academic wants their work to be thought of as sensitive and generously fair-minded is that they will describe it, not as forensically inspecting or exploring some issue, but as ‘attending to it’, where attending suggests entendre, patiently waiting upon something rather than submitting it precipitately to analysis. Reading is increasingly conducted by ultrasound rather than amniocentesis.

The focus on the powers of assertion involved in giving voice makes us insufficiently alive to the power that inheres in the attentive listener, and the often unpleasant pleasure that may be taken in such listening. For to listen is often to demand and extract declaration, and to force utterance into testimony. (‘You are not obliged to say anything, but anything you do say…’). Up until recently at least, we have seemed much less concerned about being overheard than about being overseen. But perhaps we should wake up to the persisting and propagating force of what might be called, but tellingly isn’t, aurveillance. We may think of the ordeal to which King Lear submits his daughters, of cramming his needy, greedy ear with sentimental sonority. Lear’s remark at the end of the play, as he bears Cordelia’s hanged body on to the stage, that ‘Her voice was ever soft,/Gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman’ has been heard as a motto for the historical muting and mutilation of the female voice. But we may be intended to remember in it Kent’s assurance to Lear in the opening scene of the play that vocal subduing is a way of refusing the speak-up subjugation after which power lusts: ‘Thy youngest daughter does not love thee least,/Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sounds/Reverb no hollowness’.

I don’t imagine that it will be easy to blacken the unimpeachably good name of listening, but I feel like trying.