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Sound Reading

Jean-Luc Nancy – Listening

Holding this book in my hands, I wondered what the cover illustration had to do with the subject of listening. One can see a baroque Venus lying on a bed while a boy whispers something in her ear. There is a young man on the left side leaning over his shoulder to listen in on that conversation. Okay. But where is the point? Only after labouring myself through the first - and longest, namegiving - essay of this small book, a coda reveals that the Titian painting extends to the left side and shows an organ played by the young man who then obviously seeks the attention of the naked lady. In a similar way this book blurs its message through convoluted sentence constructions and excessive etymological word plays that may make sense in French but sound contrived and mannered in English. To give an example of how this could read:

“Listening must be examined - itself auscultated - at the keenest or tightest point of its tension and its penetration. The ear is stretched [tendue] by or according to meaning - perhaps one should say that its tension is meaning already, or made of meaning, from the sounds and cries that signal danger or sex to the animal, onward to analytical listening, which is, after all, nothing but listening taking shape or function as being inclined toward affect and not just toward concept (which does not have to do with understanding [entendre]), as it can always play (or “analyze”), even in a conversation, in a classroom or a courtroom.” (bracketed French words added by the translator, who tries to convey the layers of meaning that get lost in the English translation)

Nancy’s probably most famous publication is “Corpus” which deals with the duality of soul and body. This post-structruralist thinking in the following of Derrida seems to be imposed on the phenomenon of listening. For Nancy the human body is a resonant chamber (like the belly of the beforementioned Venus) that responds to music and sound not only through outer attentiveness but also through inner vibrations. This resonance makes the listener aware of an imminence of presence that might not be found in other art forms. In his words:

“Music is the art of the hope for resonance: a sense that does not make sense except because of its resounding in itself. It calls to itself and recalls itself, reminding itself and by itself, each time, of the birth of music, that is to say, the opening of a world in resonance, a world taken away from the arrangements of objects and subjects, brought back to its own amplitude and making sense or else having its truth only in the affirmation that modulates this amplitude.”

There might be some beautiful ideas in his text (they might even “sound” better in French), but Nancy bypasses easily a lot of aspects of listening that are crucial for a broader understanding, only to name the fact that listening is a dynamic process of learning and self-development in every human being. Comparing this little book with academic, but nonetheless much more communicative works like, let’s say Casey O’Callaghan’s “Sounds” or Alfred S. Bregman’s “Auditory Scene Analysis”, it leaves a cloud of erratic word-juggling while the latter reward the reader with fruitful insights into perception and the nature of sound.




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