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Listening (excerpt)
Jean Luc Nancy

Is listening something of which philosophy is capable? Or – we ?ll insist a little, at the risk of exaggerating the point – hasn ?t philosophy superimposed upon listening, beforehand and of necessity, or substituted for listnening, something else that might be more in the order of understanding? Isn ?t the philosopher someone who always hears (and who hears everything), but who cannot listen, or who, more precisely, neutralizes listening within himself, so that he can philosophize?

Not, however, without finding himself immediately given over to the slight, keen indecision that rings out, or shouts between ”listening” and ”understanding”; between two kinds of hearing, between a tension and a balance, between a sense (that one listens to) and a truth (that one understands).

What secret is at stake when one truly listens, that is, when one tries to capture or surprise the sonority rather than the message? What secret is yielded – hence also made public – when we listen to a voice, an instrument, or a sound just for itself? What does to be listening, to be all ears, as one would say ”to be in the world” mean? What does it mean to exist according to listening, what part of experience and truth is put into play? What is at play in listening, what resonates in it, what is the tone of listening or its timbre? Is even listening itself sonorous?
To listen is tendre l'oreille - literally, to stretch the ear – an expression that is an intensification and a concern, a curiosity or an anxiety. Every sensory register thus bears with it both its simple nature and its tense, attentive, or anxious state: seeing and looking, smelling and sniffing, touching and feeling, hearing and listening. The last auditive pair has a special relationship with sense in the intellectual or intelligible acceptance of the word (with ”perceived meaning” as opposed to ”perceiving sense”). Entendre, ”to hear”, also means comprendre, ”to understand”, as if ”hearing” were above all ”hearing say” rather than ”hearing sound”.

If ”to hear” is to understand the sense (to hear a siren, a bird, or a drum is already each time to understand at least the rough outline of a situation, a context if not a text), to listen is to be straining toward a possible meaning, and consequently one that is not immediately accessible.

To be listening is always to be on the edge of meaning, or in an edgy meaning of extremity, and as if the sound were precisely nothing else than this edge, this fringe, this margin. But what can be the shared space of meaning and sound? Meaning consists in a reference. In fact, it is made of a totality of referrals: from a sign to a thing, from a state of things to a quality. Sound is also made of referrals:it spreads in space, where it resounds while still resounding ”in me”, as we say.
In the external or internal space, it resounds, that is, it remits itself while still actually "sounding", which is already "re-sounding" since that ?s nothing else but referring back to itself. To sound is to vibrate in itself or by itself: it is not only to emit a sound, but it is also to stretch out, to carry itself and be resolved into vibrations that both return it to itself and place it outside itself.

Indeed, as we have known since Aristotle, sensing is always a perception, that is, a feeling-oneself-feel: or, if you prefer, sensing is a subject, or it does not sense. One can say, then at least, that meaning and sound share the space of a referral, in which at the same time they refer to each other, and that, in a very general way, this space can be defined as the space of a self, a subject. A self is nothing other than a form or function of referral: a self is made of a relationship to self which is nothing other than the mutual referral between a perceptible individuation and an intelligible identity.

A subject feels: that is his characteristic and his definition. This means that he hears (himself), sees (himself), touches (himself), tastes (himself), and that he thinks himself or represents himself, and thus always feels himself feeling a ”self” that escapes or hides as long as it resounds elsewhere as it does in itself, in a world and in the other.

To be listening will always, then, be to be straining toward or in an approach to the self. Approach to the self: neither to a proper self (I), nor to the self of an other, but to the form or structure of self as such.

When one is listening, one is on the lookout for a subject, something (itself) that identifies itself by resonating from self to self, in itself and for itself, hence outside of itself, at once the same as an other than itself, one in the echo of the other, and this echo is like the very sound of its sense. But the sound of sense is how it refers to itself or how it sends back to itself or adresses itself, and thus how it makes sense.

In semi-Lacanian terms, the visual is on the side of an imaginary capture. While the sonorous is on the side of a symbolic referral. In other words: the visual is tendentially mimetic, and the sonorous tendentially methexic (having to do with participation, sharing, or contagion). To be listening is thus to enter into tension and to be on the lookout for a relation to self: not, it should be emphasized, a relationship to "me" (the supposedly given subject), or to the "self" of the other (the speaker, the musician, also supposedly given, with his subjectivity), but to the relation in self.

This presence is not the position of a being-present, it is not an "in view of" or a "vis a? vis". It is an "in the presence of" that does not let itself be objectified or projected outward. That is why it is first of all presence in the sense of a present that is not a being, but rather a coming and a passing, an extending and a penetrating.

Sound essentially comes and expands, or is deferred and transferred.
Sonorous time takes place immediately according to a completely different dimension, which is not that of simple succession. It is a present in waves on a swell, not in a point on a line; it is a time that opens up, that is hollowed out, that is enlarged or ramified, that envelops or separates, that becomes or is turned into a loop...

The sonorous present is the result of space-time. It spreads through space, or rather it opens a space that is its own, the very spreading of its resonance ?, its expanxion and its reverberation.
This space is immediately omni-dimensional and transversate through all spaces.
Sound has no hidden face; it is all in front, in back, and outside inside, inside-out in relation to the most general logic of presence as appearing, as phenomenality or as manifestation, and thus as the visible face of a presence subsisting in self.