I wrote this short piece for a medical journal CFP as a kind of primer for STEM-minded folks interested in perspectives on the efficacy of listening. It got rejected (so it goes) and I don’t have the energy to try to place it elsewhere. But I kind of liked it, so, here are 1,484 words about listening that otherwise won’t make it to print.
“What if I were to think art was just paying attention?”1(p202) In a 1983 essay connecting art practices to the cultivation of a meaningful life, performance artist and painter Alan Kaprow draws a connection between the intentional practice of art-as-paying-attention and practices oriented toward enlightenment. Somehow comporting the subject toward a better life, he suggests that art understood as intentional self-reflexivity “complements what various psychotherapies and meditational disciplines have always done.”1(218) This insight is an old one, yet its mechanism of efficacy is challenging to conceptualize. In any case, such an idea is acutely relevant in our contemporary world characterized by fatigue of perceptual overload and the increasing prevalence of attention economies.
Diversely understood in terms of stillness, intention, quietude, listening, etc., researchers across fields such as psychology,2 cognitive science,3-5 continental philosophy and political theory,6,7 musicology and sound studies,8-10 and art criticism,11,1 concur that human experience is deeply informed by subjects’ intentional practice of stillness and listening. In this essay I develop Kaprow’s allusion to “paying attention” in terms of an intentional stillness—particularly as an active mode of listening—from several perspectives that connect listening to understanding; how we “be in the world.” The promising outcomes of stillness and listening show how their cultivation might result in personal enrichment, resilience, feelings of “centeredness” and wholeness, as well as an opening onto horizons of empathy and understanding that evince the relevance of a plurality of human perspectives.12(p237-8) Such a framing demonstrates that each of us is “unfinished” in our subjectivity, always in-progress, and that our practices of stillness represent the condition for the possibility of our continued growth in understanding.
I argue that our capacity to be still and listen discloses how we find and feel ourselves in our unique milieu, situating ourselves in meaningful space.13(p56) It is from this position that we might more effectively foment care in our personal relationships, work, and ethical responsibilities in a globalized world characterized by radical plurality. In what follows I briefly describe explanatory theoretical scaffoldings derived from diverse corners of the humanities that support the efficacy of stillness and perhaps direct the interested reader toward further reading and research. Taken together, these substantiate the foundational importance of intentional stillness-as-listening to how each of us might grow in how we be understandingly in the world.
Returning to Kaprow’s essay, he suggests that the cultivation of a meaningful life might be informed by an ambivalent practice of attention to that which is the case; to that “real” which exists independent of human valuation. Importantly, beyond the perceived reality of human worlds, this modality of stillness characterized as listening also presents as an open, disinterested ambivalence to that which could be the case. We can conceive of this mode of listening as a “waiting-upon” without expectation that comprises a subjective horizon of openness. For an example of this mode of listening I point to that practice developed by prolific sound artist, composer, and theorist Pauline Oliveros. With strong ties to experimental sound practices in California developed in the mid-twentieth century, Oliveros devoted much of her life to developing her conceptualization of listening:
“Deep Listening involves going below the surface of what is heard, expanding to the whole field of sound while finding focus. This is the way to connect with the acoustic environment, all that inhabits it, and all that there is…Through accessing many forms of listening we grow and change whether we listen to the sounds of our daily lives, the environment or music. Deep Listening takes us below the surface of our consciousness and helps to change or dissolve limiting boundaries.”14
This modality of listening might be understood as a mode of secular trancing, “divorced from religious practice but often carrying religious sentiments such as feelings of transcendence or a sense of communion with a power beyond oneself.”15(p2) Taking such claims seriously, we might recognize that the labor of intentional stillness and listening—primary to and divorced from expectation and the context of whatever is heard—may proffer extreme affective change.
A clue the efficacy of stillness and listening may lie in the synthetic capacity of productive imagination engaged in what philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer referred to in his conceptualization of play.12(p102) It is this space of meaning-making (understood in terms of the Husserlian epoché, or, phenomenological bracketing16) that a subject might find their horizon of understanding to have been refigured by the work of being intentionally present; waiting upon a worlding. While not demonstrable here due to space constraints, systematic articulations of these insights are to be found in philosophical hermeneutics that develop the phenomenological nature of human understanding.12,13,16
It is in this way, too, that we might find the act of listening to be implicated in ethical demands which in turn condition political praxis with perceived “others.”6(p141-74) When we listen, we find that others’ worlds differ from our own and that no symbolic system (e.g., language) permits perfect communication of ideas from one to the other. Listening is, then, an ethical activity implicated in any kind of mutual understanding and social plurality. Addressing this ethical character of listening, cultural theorist Lisbeth Lipari further develops the concept of intertextuality (the mutually-reliant character of texts comprising their situated meaningfulness) into “interlistening.” The function of interlistening describes how the act of listening is implicated in the ongoing construction of a subject’s meaningful world; how personal meaning-making resonates with echoes of everything we have ever heard, thought, seen, touched, said, and read throughout our lives. Lipari goes further to show how this act of interlistening situates each listener within an internal reflexive relationship, comprising a foundational social field with their own meta-cognition. In the same way that one cannot touch without also being touched, even when alone and thinking in internal dialogue, a self-listening is there to accompany self-speaking. The two are not a duality, but complementary characteristics of a unity comprising a subject’s mode of being-as-understanding. In demonstration, she asks:
“When I’m thinking silently to myself, am I speaking or listening? If I’m speaking (or listening), then who’s listening (or speaking)? And along those lines, do I listen not only to words with my mind, but also to the music of the voice in my ears, and the posture and the gesture of the body with my eyes, the vibrational rhythm of others’ pulsations, movements, and intonations in my body?” 10(p9)
Acts of (inter)listening, even if only to/with ourselves, are shown already to comprise pluralistic dialog. This resultant ethics of speaking/listening to ourselves models how we might listen to the perspectives of others situated in their own meaningful worldviews that differ from our own.6(p144) Whether characterized either as quotidian self-reflection or intentional waiting openness toward the plural alterity in the world, a practice of listening is constitutive of how we be in the world understandingly. Our capacity to focus our attention, then, has an impact on our capacity for the (re)figuration of our horizon of understanding.
The ideas I have collected in this brief essay differ in their terms and the intellectual traditions from which they derive. However, they are connected by their recognition of the reflexive relationship between listening, understanding, and being. In these terms, we have theoretically supported the benefits of that cultivation of an open, meaningful life referred to by Kaprow in a practice of disinterested waiting openness: a formulation of stillness-as-listening.
In summary, I have substantiated the initial suggestion that paying attention is itself a mode of disinterested enlightenment, of broadening a horizon of understanding that grows one’s very inherence in the world. This is echoed in Oliveros’s terms which suggest how Deep Listening might take us below the surface of our consciousness, changing or dissolving previously limiting boundaries. This space of listening is what Gadamer might call the experiential bracketing of play that leaves the player’s horizon of understanding refigured, perhaps richer. Lipari’s insights regarding the ethical dimensions of our internal dialogue demonstrate how our intentional listening/speaking models our ethics with others and their meaningful worlds that may point to further relevance in political praxis. Finally, all of these theoretical perspectives seem to agree that to what we listen is not as important as the intentionally open act of stillness-as-listening.
At first blush, such an insight might seem paradoxically both naïve and overly complicated. Still we find that our intentional practices of stillness-as-listening change us – often for the better. Our worlds become more meaningful, our horizons of understanding are augmented. Kaprow closes his essay: “The reader may say, ‘so what, everything has meaning—my lunch, your remarks, last year’s weather reports.’ And again that’s the point! If only we paid attention; but we don’t.”1(p215) It is my hope that the few theoretical clues to the productive efficacy of stillness-as-listening shared above might entreat the reader to cultivate their own practice as well as to explore some of the means by which artists and scholars in the humanities have accounted for its import.
- Kaprow A. The Real Experiment. In: Jeff Kelley, ed. Kaprow: Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press;  1993: 201-18.
- Davis D, DeBlaere C, Hook J, Owen J. Mindfulness-Based Practices in Therapy: A Cultural Humility Approach. Washington DC: American Psychological Association; 2020.
- Clarke D; Clarke E, eds. Music and Consciousness: Philosophical, Psychological, and Cultural Perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2011.
- Goguen J. A. Musical Qualia, Context, Time, and Emotion. Journal of Consciousness Studies. 2001;3-4: 117-47.
- Sloboda J. Exploring the Musical Mind: Cognition, Emotion, Ability, Function. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2005.
- Bickford S. The Dissonance of Democracy: Listening, Conflict, and Citizenship. New York: Cornell University Press; 1996.
- Nancy J. Listening. Mandell C, trans. New York, NY: Fordham University Press;  2007.
- Kane B. Jean-Luc Nancy and the Listening Subject. Contemporary Music Review. 2012;31: 439-47.
- Hegarty P. Noise/Music: A History. New York, NY: Continuum; 2007.
- Lipari, L. Listening, Thinking, Being: Toward an Ethics of Attunement. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press; 2014.
- Cage, J. Listening to Music. In: John Cage, Writer: Previously Uncollected Pieces. Kostelantez R, ed. New York, NY: Limelight Editions;  1993: 15-9.
- Gadamer H. Truth and Method 2nd Revised Edition. Weinsheimer J, Marshall D, trans. New York, NY: Continuum; 1994.
- Ricoeur P. The Task of Hermeneutics. In: Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays on language, action, and interpretation. Thompson J, trans. & ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 43-62.
- The Center for Deep Listening. About Deep Listening. https://www.deeplistening.rpi.edu/deep-listening/. Accessed January 16, 2022
- Becker J. Deep Listeners: Music, Emotion, and Trancing. Bloomington: Indiana; 2004.
- Husserl E. Cartesian Meditations: An Introduction to Phenomenology. Cairns D, trans. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff; 1977.