Jean-Luc Nancy – On Listening

This second semester of the first year of my PhD starts with a course related to my research; Improvisation and the Poetics of Listening. Although listening is central to my interests, improvisation studies is still new to me.

During last year’s Sound & Sensory Studies colloquia we discussed most of Jean-Luc Nancy’s Listening. I must admit that a lot has happened in the past year, and I already remember it as a lot more lyrical than the excerpt from “On Listening” we read for the second Improvisation seminar last week.

Venus and Music

The main points that came up were questions around Nancy’s use of “self” rather than “subject.” My own immediate thoughts might become clearer by the end, but suffice it to say that I think it is tied to Nancy’s insistence on the non-human (or non-(subject-in-the-usual-sense-of-a-clearcut-individual)). Simply calling the resonant body a subject would only confuse, since he is not just talking about the human reception of sound, but sound, listening and resonance as such…

Sonority and Sense

Nancy also invokes a McLuhan-esque distinction between medium and massage – or in this case, between sonority and meaning. Sound and voice. In a questionable turn, he calls the listening to sonority – to the sound apart from any meaning – true listening. I almost always find these hierarchical modes of true, pure or concentrated listening problematic. To me, different forms of listening seems more like a state of flux – always intersecting with one another.

In “On Listening,” Nancy becomes interesting in his suggestion that listening could somehow be sonorous. Could listening have a timbre of its own? Of course, there is the oto-acoustics of our inner ear, but is there perhaps a way that listening itself creates sound?

Listening is always caught in the tension between the acknowledgement of sound as such and the straining towards its meaning. Both of these modes disappear the other – one cannot exist without the occlusion of the other. Listening strains towards a sense beyond sound, yet listening also imparts sense on us where meaning becomes sound through our listening to it (as is often the case in music).

Feeling oneself-feel

Sounds are spread in space, vibrating through one thing before it hits the next, resounding or resonance or echo as a referral back to itself. In this way, sensing is always perception of perception itself. In almost Derridean prose, Nancy shows that sensing is a feeling oneself-feel. This is where Nancy invokes the self rather than the subject. It does not matter for Nancy who or what is doing the sensing. The act of sensing is itself a subject (or rather, a self). Therefore, sound and meaning create a self through resonance’s self-referentiality.

The space of sound is omnidirectional and flowing through objects. To listen is to be penetrated yet surrounded – both from oneself and towards oneself. We are thus always in the midst of sound – both receiving and transmitting sound through our resonant bodies. In Douglas Kahn’s words, we are transducers of sound.

Nancy’s ontology of sound is a strange one, where sound itself is seemingly given agency through its self-ness. According to Nancy, sound is not in a fixed presence or being, but always in motion, which makes it a place-of-its-own-self as relation to itself. Sound is a self that creates a place for itself through its resonance. The sonorous place is not a place where the subject comes to make itself heard. It is a place that becomes a subject because sound resounds (resonates) here.

I (perhaps wrongly) assume that Nancy is here talking about a making-a-place-for-oneself through listening. Yet I prefer to read it as an account of the agency of sound. A Bryantine sound-oriented ontology or Bennettian vibrant sono-materialism, where sounds themselves acquire agency through their resounding of their environment. Could resonance be the appearance of sound?


Once I’ve read what Brian Kane has to say about Nancy’s Listening, I will be back with more on this…

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