Thursday, October 23, 2008

45.0 In Press

One of the hardest things about being on leave is juggling. Here is an article accepted for the International Journal of Listening about ethics, juggled into near completion -- the penultimate draft (excerpts, to preserve copyright for the journal).


A Broader Understanding of the Ethics of Listening:
Philosophy, Cultural Studies, Media Studies and the Ethical Listening Subject



Abstract: This article recognizes the importance of traditional, empirical research on listening, but questions whether that research is adequate to ground a theory of ethical listening. By focusing on listening as an activity and cognitive process, that research undermines our recognition of listening's role as a practice in the ethical constitution of the subject. This essay looks at philosophical history (e.g., Foucault), cultural studies of sound (e.g., Schafer, Corbin, Smith) and of music (e.g., Adorno, Wong, Botstein) and media & communication texts (e.g., Finucane & Horavath) to articulate the ways that listening structures our subjectivity and yields limited agency to the individual in constituting our own ethical being. That research in listening is used to refine Ratcliffe's metaphorical model for Rhetorical Listening with reference to the empirical experiences of the ear. The essay closes by generating five key choices we all make in ethical listening, choices that are the basis for evaluating the ethics of our communicative practice: the choice to listen individually, the choice to listen selectively, the choice not to listen, the choice to listen together, and only then, the choice to listen to each other.

The Limitations of the Sociocognitive Perspective on Listening

Listening, as a field of research, has been restricted to a set of voluntary and conscious behaviors that can be enacted more or less effectively on verbal and nonverbal messages. Success as an effective listener, defined in this way, can be assessed through any number of tools (the Brown, Carlsen, Carstens (BCC) Listening Test, the Sequential Tests of Educational Progress: Listening Comprehension (STEP), the Wepman Auditory Discrimination Test, the Kentucky Comprehensive Listening Test, the Listening Styles Inventory and the Listener Preference Profile, to start the list).

There is usefulness in circumscribing listening in this way. It differentiates listening as a behavior open to study from the communication studies perspective from (on the one hand) audiology and (on the other hand) listening as a purely aesthetic activity. It rules out questions of the physiology of hearing (and the interference that things like deafness can cause) from active research in listening. It also rules out questions about the interpretation of music and of ambient noise, as neither of those is considered “messages.” The body of research developed under the rubric of listening (in an intellectual tradition traced back to the pioneering work of Ralph Nichols in the postwar period) has advanced precisely because it has been differentiated from these other phenomena. Like cartographers who are only interested in mapping elevation (without reference to political boundaries, population, etc.), researchers in listening have succeeded in defining their task and doing it well.

As a result of this differentiation, we can describe the skill set of an effective listener and we can diagnose deficiencies in the habits of individual listeners. As McKenzie and Clark call it, the outcome of much listening research is typically “to be interpreted on a continuum from `poor' listener to `good' listener” (33). And that territory is mapped thoroughly.

The underlying models for contemporary listening research are rooted in two complementary research perspectives: the biological/cognitive model and the contextual/behavioral model (as outlined in McKenzie and Clark's “The All-In-One Concept: How Much Must Listening Research Include?”); taken together, in this essay, I will call them a “sociocognitive” model. The sociocognitive model presumes a relatively stable subjectivity, a stable listening self composed of skills and cognitive schemas. The listening self deploys those skills and schemas in rational and analyzable ways to interpret messages.

This circumscription of listening limits our ability to apply current research in listening to questions of ethics. This sociocognitive research fails to account for claims like Charles Hirschkind's assertion that “sermon audition has been identified as essential to cultivating the sensitive heart” (131). Hirschkind tells us that “careful listeners hone those affective-volitional dispositions that both attune the heart to God's word and incline the body toward moral conduct” (132). Hirschkind's work is emblematic of research that this essay pushes forward: research into the ways that the subject is constituted by the act of listening, not separate from it.

This research is important both for its ethical dimension and for its possibilities for integrating listening research into larger issues of critical communication studies. As Deborah Wong tells us, “listening practices are a crucial interstice for commodity capitalism and subject formation. At once intimate, individual, and inflected by global capitalist systems, listening is a site where considerable slippage occurs between agency and coercion” (366). The leap that Wong and Hirschkind make is a leap that the line of research in the sociocognitive vein isn't yet ready to make, but that this essay will argue is imperative.

To develop a sense of the listening subject as an ethical subject, we need to understand the role of listening, broadly conceived, in the constitution of the subject. Foucault makes a persuasive argument for this claim, and so we can start with his work on listening in the classical context. Contemporary cultural studies has picked up this agenda by redefining listening to include the full range of auditory culture, from listening to the broadest soundscapes of ambient noise to listening to music. We pick up this agenda, as well. (There is good reason, from the sociocognitive perspective, to differentiate listening to messages from listening to music, but this differentiation for purposes of research cripples our understanding of the human subject constructed by listening.) This research is consonant with other research in media studies, and that research, as well. The end result is a full spectrum of the practices of the listening subject, grounded in choices that are the basis for evaluating the ethics of our communicative practice.

That catalog of practices make listening a Foucaultian “technology of the self.” Foucault defines a technology of the self in multiple ways. For example, in a 1982 lecture at the University of Vermont, Foucault claims that a technology of the self permits individuals

to effect by their own means, or with the help of others, a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct and ways of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection or immortality. (“Technologies of the Self” 225)

In another lecture, Foucault defined the technologies of the self as “the procedures … suggested or prescribed to individuals in order to determine their identity, maintain it, or transform it in terms of a certain number of ends” (“Subjectivity and Truth” 87). A technology of the self is essential to the maintenance and the transformation of subjectivity.

Flynn, in “Truth and Subjectivation,” tells us how the Foucaultian idea that the self is the product of practices is different from the self of the Cartesian model:

So the "self" constituted by ascetical practices in the ancient world regarding diet, sex, and the management of one's household -- the temperance (sophrosyne) of classical ethics -- and by the "true life" (alethes bios) of the Cynics, this self is an achievement, not an initial principle. (538)

The sociocognitive approach to listening takes the self as an initial principle, and therein lies its limitation. Listening research should understand its object of study as a practice that constitutes the self, one of many such practices. Rajchman tells us that “Foucault stresses the sheer variety of the ways in which we are constituted” (169); the variety of practices that participate in the constitution of the subject is immense, and certainly can include listening.

In fact, Foucault's historical exegesis of classical culture leads him to recognize that listening can a technology of the self. In his lectures at the College de France in 1981-1982 (collected in The Hermeneutics of the Subject). Foucault spends a good deal of time reflecting on listening in the classical context. But he does so in a very circumscribed way; it is a very particular kind of listening that interests Foucault. Foucault's reflections are summarized in the first section of this essay. In later sections of the essay, it should become clear that listening (in all its diverse practices, whether listening to speech, to music, to the media or to the soundscape) is among the most powerful contemporary “technologies of the self,” in that it has immense power to locate the subject within the structures of power and a web of social relations. From that recognition, we can build some guidelines for ethical choices we all make in listening.

Foucault's Listening as a Technology of the Self in the Classical Context:


Foucault explores listening as a technology of the self in the lectures collected in The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the College de France, 1981-1982. In the classical context, listening is distinct from speaking because speaking is a techne, but listening requires, by Foucault's interpretation of Epictetus, experience, practice, and diligence. This opposition means that “an `art of listening' cannot be an `art' in the strict Classical sense” (340). Nonetheless, definite listening practices arise in the classical context.

The first practice of listening (for Plutarch, Epictetus, and Seneca, too) is silence: Initiates into Pythagorean communities were required “to listen, only to listen and entirely without intervening, objecting, giving his opinion” (341). Silence is divine; “it was the gods who taught men silence, and it was men who taught us to speak” (341). Listening implies also a time of reflection within that silence. “We should not immediately convert what we have heard into speech. We should keep hold of it” (342). Foucault cites a more complex passage:

When you have heard someone say something important, do not start quibbling straightaway but try to collect yourself and spend some moments in silence, the better to imprint what you have heard, and undertake a quick self-examination when leaving the lesson you have listened to, or the conversation you have had, take a quick look at yourself in order to see where you are, whether you have heard and learned something new with regard to the equipment (the paraskeue) you already have at hand, and thus see to what extent and how far you have been able to improve yourself. (350)

Listening, clearly, is a moment of silence that makes possible the constitution of the self.

In a strong point of difference from contemporary listening practices, classical listening also requires a “precise physical posture” (343). For effective listening, “the body must stay absolutely calm” (343). Foucault believes that the immobility of the body is “a guarantee of morality” (344). Understanding is to be indicated “by a smile and a slight movement of the head” (345); the body's stillness is essential.

Good listening is not just about receiving a message; it is a dynamic part of the communication process. Listening spurs the speaker: it is “a kind of demonstration of the listener's will, which arouses and supports the master's discourse” (346). Epictetus describes this as the listener's responsibility to “arouse my desire” to speak (347), and so participates in the constitution of the speaker's self, as well.

It is clear, then, that Foucault reflected deeply on a highly structured practice of listening and saw in that practice the possibility that listening was a technology of the self. This essay complements and updates the Foucaultian text by widening our understanding of what listening is, as a concept and a practice. This includes listening to soundscapes, to music, and to media. All of these listening practices participate in the construction of the subject; before we can develop an ethic of listening, we need to understand how these practices interplay.

The Soundscape Defines the Auditory Continuum and Shapes Subjectivity

R. Murray Schafer defines for us the largest single range of listening phenomena unaccounted for in the social scientific study of listening or in the Foucaultian account. Schafer identifies a “soundscape” or an “acoustic environment” as an object of study.

From the critical perspective, Schafer is interested in what he calls “acoustic ecology,” in which a specific sound environment is recorded and analyzed. Schafer recommends “soundwalks,” (212) or walks in which the ambient noises of an environment are recorded electronically; the recordings are logged onto a map of the space. The noises include those sounds that exist regardless of the visitor's presence, like ambient bird noises and water or wind, and those caused by the visitor's presence, like the sound of footfalls on the walking surfaces. In documenting the environment, Schafer is acting both as a preservationist (in that Schafer uses the idea of an ecology to connect the acoustic environment with the natural ecology of the 1970s) and a historian (documenting the acoustic environment for purposes of research). Several other scholars would take up Schafer's historical project and attempt to recover the historical soundscape, and in doing so, they connect the soundscape to the constitution of the subject.

For example, Richard Cullen Rath describes the soundscape of the early North American settlements. Anecdotally, he describes a 1688 Jamaican plantation. There, “a single enslaved African sang the words `Hoba Ognion'” while “the rest of the company of bound Africans would clap their hands and sing `Alla, Alla'.” Rath makes the leap that Schafer does not, when he calls the Jamaican ritual “a key part of community consciousness” (8), thereby tying the soundscape to subjectivity.

Similar research has been done in France. Alain Corbin looks historically to the use of church and village bells to define a “territorial identity” (117). Corbin demonstrates that literally, in the nineteenth century in France, an individual's sense of their home territory could be defined by the soundscape created by the closest audible bells. Bells served, in Corbin's argument, to anchor membership in a community.

According to Corbin, institutions recognized the power of the bells and tried to regularize them and their effects. For example, the Church decreed that Cathedrals held 5-7 bells while local parishes could hold at most three. Monastery bells could not reach louder or further than the local parish bell, and the cathedral bells should always be rung before local bells within their area. In other words, the geographic reach of the church's institutions was reflected by the volume and the sequence of ringing of the bells. The soundscape centered on the bell, and local identity developed around the soundscape.

American cultural historian Mark Smith writes about the ways that contrasting soundscapes helped define the north in opposition to the south in Civil War America. Southerners defined the soundscape of the north in terms of oppressive, industrial noises, while the southerners embraced an agrarian country silence to define their own soundscape. The north, in turn, defined the south not as the land of quiet plantations, but instead as the land of screaming slaves. In either case, a sense of group identification rooted not in politics or fiery oratory, but in a soundscape, is clear.

Our soundscapes have a fundamental impact on the construction of our subjectivity. Before we can parse a theory of ethics in terms of listening, we need to account for the ways that our acoustic environments give contour to our sense of self. And we need to recognize that the fiction under which listening research operates, in which listening, as a communicative act, is distinct from “hearing,” is precisely that: a fiction. When Nichols offered a rule of thumb statistic, that 45% of our time communicating is spent listening, as opposed to spending 30% of our communicative time in speaking and 9% of our time writing, he was effacing the simple truth that we cannot stop listening. It may be possible to isolate 9% of our time spent writing, because writing is entirely a volitional, physical activity. In contrast, we cannot stop making sense of our auditory environment; as long as we are awake, we are interpreting and we are being shaped by sound.

The articulated messages that we are interpreting as part of the conscious act of listening (in the sociocognitive model) are part of a continuum of auditory stimuli that all contribute to the fashioning of our subjectivity and must be understood as part of that.

... to be continued, I hope, in the ethics issue of IJL.

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