Fillip 2 — Winter 2006

By All Means Listen By All Means: Reading Aural Cultures
Brady Cranfield

YYZ Books and the Walter Phillips Gallery’s anthology of essays, Aural Cultures (2004), compiled by one-time Parachute editor Jim Drobnick, begins with Richard Leppart’s essay, “The Social Discipline of Listening,” which examines visual representations of sound, specifically with respect to music. This opening entry seems, initially, like a step in the wrong (read as “typical”) direction. The visual comes first, as usual, once again providing the analytical template for the other senses, including specifically qua sound. Surely this is an inauspicious beginning for an anthology ostensibly dedicated to so-called “aural cultures,” a subject area arguably in good need of its own specific critical examination. Could this be the same old visual bias at work, a bias now routinely castigated as a fundamental aspect of the “grand ocular empire of enlightened Western rationality”? And yet, here is the irony: What is any book on sound, both good and bad, but basically a visual representation of its purported object, where the only sound typically heard is the ghostlike voice in the reader’s own head, silently intoning lines of text for an audience of one?

Materially, YYZ, the Walter Phillips Gallery, and Drobnick address the absence of actual sound (or, to put it another way, the presence only of “haunted” sound, as referred to previously) by including an accompanying fifteen-track CD compilation, which offers a recommendable mixture of music, sound-based works, and sound art (with Dave Dyment’s concluding microtonal monochrome drone, “24 Hours (A Day in the Life)” a particular favourite). As Drobnick contextualizes, this CD and book, the pages of which also include images of various artworks similarly concerned in some way with sound (or, rather, with aural cultures), all find their past source in an evolving conference, residency program, exhibition, and performance series on the same subject, as shepherded by Drobnick. Inclusive, then, Aural Cultures is a total package—a document. Rhetorically, Drobnick’s introduction also offers a notion transposed from the Lacanian theorist and critic Slavoj Žižek, which offers brief extra instruction vis-à-vis this anthology’s initial “look” at the visual: the notion of (or, maybe more to the point, the strategy of) “listening awry.” “Listening Awry” is also the title of Drobnick’s piece here, by which he means, in his words, to listen from an angle, with interest.

In his introduction, Drobnick also reiterates a common observation with respect to other studies on all things related to sound, an observation that, not incidentally, I have already echoed above. There is an evident shortage of specific, practicable resources in the emerging field of sound studies—if, in truth, there is sufficient material available already to even fairly describe this field as properly constituting a field to begin with. Responding in part to this perceived lack, Drobnick’s retooled notion of listening awry is both provocative and useful while also providing the norm by which his interdisciplinary-minded editorial choices should be respected. Indeed, with this notion in mind, what better way to listen awry than by looking? And, as it turns out, the essay following Leppart’s, Peter L. Schmunk’s “What Did Van Gogh Hear?: Vibrations, Wagner, and Voices,” also departs first from the visual, further signifying the commitment Drobnick has to his intriguing proposal. But what does listening awry entail? For an expanded answer, it is worth first leapfrogging Drobnick, Žižek, and Jacques Lacan back to Roland Barthes and Sigmund Freud, before returning again to our departure point.

In his erudite essay “Listening,” Barthes quotes Freud’s advice to aspiring psychoanalysts, re-excerpted here: We must make no effort to concentrate the attention on anything in particular, but to maintain in regard to all that one hears the same measure of calm quiet attentiveness—of “evenly hovering” attention as I once before described it.... It will be seen, therefore, that the principle of evenly distributed attention is necessary corollary to the demand on the patient to communicate everything that occurs to him without criticism or selection. If the physician behaves otherwise, he is throwing aside most of the advantage to be gained by the patient’s obedience to the “fundamental rule of psychoanalysis.” For the physician the rule may be expressed thus: all conscious exertion is to be withheld from the capacity for attention, and one’s “unconscious memory” is to be given full play; or to express it in terms of technique pure and simple: one has simply to listen and not to trouble to keep in mind anything in particular.1

The goal for Freud with this recommended form of specialized listening (which, in fact, more closely approximates hearing to the extent it is more involuntary, less directed than listening, as commonly understood) is to somehow foster and facilitate unmitigated communication between the analyst and analysand directly at the level of the unconscious—as if their ghosts were in ethereal conversation. This kind of dispassionate or, in Freud’s words, “hovering” listening attends to nothing in particular, and thus is for Freud the ideal style of listening for the therapeutic context. This is a listening strategy that is best able to hear the revealed truth of the unconscious desire of the analysand (read as “the other”). Freud’s style of “non-listening” parallels Drobnick’s notion of “listening awry,” even if, strictly speaking, Freud in fact recommends exactly the opposite strategy from Drobnick, who contrarily emphasizes a kind of didactic intentionality: in other words, a decidedly attentive “listening awry.”

Since Drobnick takes his proposal from Žižek, however, what is to be listened to awry, at least with respect to Žižek’s habit, is not specifically “the other,” but rather, the “big Other”: the Real. This is where Drobnick’s notion takes on its own identity, veering from Žižek’s conception of “looking awry,” which describes a kind of indirect, perhaps even accidental viewing, much unlike Drobnick’s objective. For Žižek, in other words, following Freud via Lacan, looking awry means seeing by virtue of not specifically looking. By Žižek’s position, described in his book Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (1991), if the more generic process of seeing (read as “hearing”) is fixed in a specific instance of looking (read as “listening”), then the truth of the Real is made invisible (read as, you guessed it, “inaudible”). What is viewed by looking, instead, is a particular expression of “social reality,” an articulated matrix of Symbolic and Imaginary relations. And here it gets tricky: it is exactly by means of such specific acts of looking that the Real can be seen, but only peripherally, furtively, mirage-like, aside from—or rather, awry from—the real target of invested looking. If focussed on, in other words, the Real, in and of itself, cannot be seen—and is this also not true of sound, a vibratory, properly invisible force?

Hardly mistaken, I think Drobnick is probably more interested in exploring the changing matrix of Symbolic and Imaginary (aural?) relations than he is specifically in the obscure (and obscene) power of the Real (sound?), to use language that he does not. And yet, Drobnick’s first editorial choice nevertheless enacts a sly Žižekian scheme. As I questioned before, sometimes in order to listen we actually might need to look (and yes, also to read, activating the speaking ghosts in our heads. As Douglas Kahn remarks in Noise Water Meat (1991): “During the heyday of the avant-garde, some of the most provocative instances of sound came from literature and other writings and were distant from the development of the arts or aurality of the time”2). Guided by this principle, therefore, Drobnick’s “extra sensory” choices get closer to the supposed object of his investigatory efforts: aural cultures.

And, indeed, what might constitute aural cultures? Are they made up only of sound, pure and abstract? Obviously not: like sound as a phenomenon in itself, aural cultures are inherently contextual, contingent, and hybrid. Christof Migone’s excellent essay on farts, “Flatus Vocis: Somatic Winds,” for example, exemplifies aural culture’s mixed character. And this qualified answer also reintroduces the plausibility of a dedicated field of “sound studies,” as mentioned above. As Drobnick’s introduction indicates, too, part of what makes this potential field of inquiry so appealing (and perhaps timely) is that it must be fundamentally amenable to other, often sectarian disciplines, from history, to physics, to music, to philosophy, and so on, and thus must be more of an open, ongoing composition than itself a set discipline. To this extent, with its heterogeneous concerns and multimedia form, Aural Cultures is a valuable contribution to the ever-growing “composition,” complementing other recent good anthologies, The Auditory Culture Reader and Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music—sweet tunes all.

  1. Roland Barthes, “Listening,” in The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art and Representation, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 252–53.
  2. Douglas Kahn, Noise Water Meat (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), 101.
About the Author

Brady Cranfield is an interdisciplinary artist, musician, writer, and curator. He teaches at Emily Carr Institute. Among the numerous music events he helps to organize is the annual experimental music festival Open Circuits at the Or Gallery. He has a master’s degree in Communication from Simon Fraser University.

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