In an article for Eurozine, Les Back reflects on the importance of listening and takes writer Primo Levi, radioman Studs Terkel and literary traveller Flemming Røgilds as examples for their accurate attentiveness. He concludes that “the value of listening is to keep a bridge open in the present between the past and the future. The listener – as the society’s ear – establishes an ethical link to those who are not heard or who are ignored.” Attentive listening is here descriped as a requisite for an utopia of a better society. Some already speak of an “acoustic turn” since our culture is supposedly changing as it moves from the dominance of the sense of seeing towards the sense of hearing. This can be seen as if the pendulum swings back into direction of the ear since many philosophers are convinced that in the middle ages the sense of hearing was valued much higher than the sense of seeing. Religion priotized the ear as the organ to hear the voice of god. Luther said, the ear would be the crucial organ of a Christian.
The repeated notion of a polarity between the ear and the eye was called an “audiovisual litany” by Jonathan Sterne in his book “The Audible Past“: following this differenciation, hearing is immersive while vision is distancing, hearing is emotional while vision remains rational, hearing tends towards subjectivity while vision tends towards objectivity and so forth. He critizes the theological undertones of this audiovisual polarity. And indeed, listening is a commodity that can be facilitated in many ways. This year, David Miliband declared New Labours death and announced in the New Statesman: “New Labour isn’t new any more. What I’m interested in is next Labour. And the route to next Labour is to be listening.” But apparently listening is also a crucial ability for the salesman. When I was googling the term “point of listening” earlier this year as an acoustic equivalent concept of the films point of view, I came across this passage in “The Point of Listening is Not What You Hear, but the Listening Itself” by Charles H. Green:
“The main reason for listening to customers is to allow the customer to be heard. Really heard. As in, actually being paid attention to by another human being. This kind of listening is listening for the sake of listening. Listening to understand, period—no strings attached, no links back to your product, no refined problem statements. Because that’s what people in relationships, at their best, really do. (…) Relationships are the context for successful selling. Relationships are based on trust; they predispose us to engage in qualitatively different kinds of sales conversations. And listening—unrestricted, unbounded, listening for its own sake—is the way we develop such relationships. And therein lies the paradox. The most powerful way to sell depends on unlinking listening from selling—and instead, just listening. Listening not as a step in a sales process, and not as a search for answers to questions. Listening not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. The point of listening is not what you hear, but the act of listening itself.”
Silent listening, my blogs title, is also spotted as a new trend in communication:
“Silent Listening is an essential business skill. It’s especially important in sales. It shows people that you are fully engaged and care about what is being said and who is delivering the message. It helps us to remember people’s names and intricate details. With Silent Listening, you are also showing compassion and congeniality (Emotional Intelligence). It helps to build strong relationships.”
This is exactly the marketing lingo I hear echoing when you speak to an extremely friendly salesperson on the phone, as I did recently to order my first smart phone. The whole conversation was embellished with cordial remarks and late birthday wishes, only the problem with my contract couldn’t be solved and he promised to call back later which he never did. The feeling that this guy wore a mask of trained friendliness and attentiveness was not leaving me, this big smile painted on his face just to hide the pressure from steep sales figures imposed on him to achieve. But this attitude is not restricted to the sales area, as this quote from “The Listening Point” by Lloyd Steffen proves:
“The ability to listen depends not in the first place on any particular skill or technique, but on a fundamental respect for one’s partner in conversation. Listening is thus a moral act. (…) We are in need of a theology of listening, for a willingness to listen ultimately expresses an attitude of love.”
That the act of listening is becoming something like a religious mantra is also true for the area of sound art and contemporary music since John Cage introduced listening for the sake of listening. I have the feeling that many artists like to use the listening dogma only as an excuse for self-indulgent and hastly produced music or conceptually idle sound art. To refer to listening as a cultural technique that we have to learn, as many do when talking about reduced listening or any other form of hightened perception of music or sounds, often comes with patronizing undertones and feels like an echo of high culture elitism. Today listening is a four-letter word, an empty shell for politicians, priests, salesmen and self-help gurus. The point of listening should be one that fluctuates between times of higher alertness and times of in-attentiveness. I sometimes don’t want to listen, I want my attentiveness to rest and take a break. When I go to a concert or listen to a piece of music, I want my attentiveness to be rewarded with something more than only the experience of listening. Recently I was in a concert with partly unbearably loud passages literally hurting in my ears and wondered about the tolerance showcased by most of the hipster audience. Is it that this attentive and zen-like openness of avant-garde listeners is the new theology of listening, are they caught in the moral act of unrestricted, unbounded engagement? Or is it that if I am tolerable to any kind of sound and music, of whatever loudness, my tolerance reflects nothing else than sheer indifference?