Listening and Ecologicity

Putting this up in the spirit of the blog as a place for incompletions…part of a short writing piece I’m trying to finish up this week.


I — NB: Listening and Ecologicity

It almost goes without saying: to listen is to acknowledge the world in its ecologicity, to call the world forth as a constellation of objective conditions and mobile sensual effects (Boetzkes). In this sense, in so far as listening involves attention it is equally (though not more) about misdirections—always more than one at a time—as it is about any conventional understanding of focus; that is, it is about the material misdirections that are called forth as the performative excesses of constellating, objectifying, conditioning, mobilizing, sensing, and effecting. NB: Materiality is always in performance, and performance is always productive of excesses.

In their own ways, musicians will tell you as much, repeating—for example—Debussy’s dictum that music is found in the spaces between the notes. Indeed, the challenge of playing in an ensemble might be characterized in this way too: one must listen simultaneously to oneself and the ensemble in both their collectivity and their distinctness, the former for obvious reasons and the latter because one must nonetheless play one’s part with the specificity that both is and signals “musicality.” Sing it in a round: musicality as circular causality. NB 1: A round isn’t actually circular, it’s one of those cases where we cite something as relatively more complex than it might be—e.g. a round conjures musical time as a spiral rather than a line—and in so doing foreclose on its more radical complexities (e.g. that music may not be spatial at all); NB 2: Circular causality isn’t actually circular, which is why one ends up thinking about listening in terms of ecologicity.

Even in a more limited field, though, such listening—which is all listening, not just musical listening—isn’t about selection, per se, in that one’s (for example) listening away from oneself to a collective isn’t in opposition to listening to oneself. Rather, listening is listening in so far as when one listens one attends to that of a sound which is not sounded, which is to say one listens to music in its nonlinearity (i.e. as a system that outputs signals that are qualitatively different from its inputs). One listens to and away: the sum of all possible attendances is less than its parts, but that less is precisely also (and more importantly) more in that its resonant affordances continually reinforce themselves. Sounds have plenty to say, but they don’t say it…they say something else. Put differently, the sum of all the musical sounds present in a room is less than its parts, but more so. NB: reality is a room, among other things; a room is also a room, among other things (as Inspector Clouseau’s requests for one reveal).[1]

Listening, then, is (in)attention. Importantly, though, this (in)attentional economy in no sense operates in the sole or even privileged mode of conscious thought. The (in)attention of listening is, for example, played out in and as the physiology of the ear itself: on one hand, it is simple enough to understand the transition of sound energy from the relatively large—indeed, airy—outer ear to the tiny oval window that acts as a threshold to the fluid-filled inner ear as precisely an attentive process. That is, the middle ear functions primarily to concentrate—to focus—the pressure exerted by a sound wave onto an eardrum into an area (i.e. the oval window) that is approximately twenty times smaller than it, thus working rather like a thumbtack. On the other hand, though, the mechanical coupling through which this takes place is rather more complex because it occurs via not one but three, the interaction of which allows for—or, put less psycho-centrically, causes—various regulatory functions. Thus, as one example of many, when the middle ear’s stapedius muscle contracts it reduces the motion of one of the three bones (the stapes) in such a way that affects the transfer of some frequencies more than others.[2] NB: “Transfer” is a term of (in)convenience, purposely chosen over “transduction” because the latter, in being slightly more accurate, might seduce one into forgetting that the entire causal chain—in being called forth as such—occludes the radical relationality that is in play; that is, occludes the primacy of listening’s ecologicity.

We listen in part by not listening. Listening is “the contraction of all sound, the contraction of all vibrations, which gives sense to sound, contracting clearly just this vibration, this sound wave, and letting the rest remain obscure, implicated in various degrees of relaxation” (Evens). And, while one might think—in concert with an informatic logic that imagines communication to consist in point-to-point transmissions of data—of this as a simple filtering process, the physiological fact of the matter is that we rely on the dynamism of the middle ear as much as its filtering profile. Put differently, since we only hear via the contractively transductive process of hearing, and since that process is inseparable from the specific and material misdirections of the middle ear’s dynamism (among other dynamisms), it follows that to listen is to attend to the effects of a reality the cause of which can never be singly determined, even as a coming together of more than one. NB: The proverbial sound of one hand clapping is not the limit case of sound, but rather its basic enabling condition…providing that we accept that every singular hand is itself a multiplicity.

Put differently, the ecology called forth in listening always includes an autonomic oto-acoustic dimension; specifically, it always includes the ongoing and relentless dynamism of intra-ear relations. Thus, while it is true that we break a physical transmission in order to have received it, it is more importantly the case that we conceive a transmission such that we can hear the ongoing relations (the contraction and dilation of the stapedius, in concert with innumerable other processes, the separation of which—i.e. the framing of such processes as distinct processes—is always contingent)…or rather, in order to take part in the transductive energetic constellation that allows for questions of meaning(lessness). The ear functions in communication in the form of an alibi, dissimulating its ecologicity in order to function, with the particularity of any given instance of “functioning” acting to “disclose [determinable] signals of an otherwise [undeterminable] object world” (Boetzkes).[3] Indeed, this is precisely why it is so important to listen well, as this alibic function is as much evidence of its (and, indeed, any) communicative importance as one is apt to hear. NB: Tinnitus is also not an exceptional case with respect to listening, but rather a basic enabling condition. One listens tinnitally to the clapping—the successive impulses—of a singular multiplicity. Listening thus signals sound’s migration beyond its enabling conditions, namely changes in air pressure.

Like I said, this almost goes without saying. Sometimes, though, saying something can work to bring forth what is said as a thing in its own right, which is to say as a before and after of its objective material existence (Boetzkes). What then, is the thingness of listening? If listening is constitutively misdirected—if it is a radically contingent production—then such a question can only be answered according to specific instances, otherwise the misdirection would be relativized. Moreover, to listen to listening would require a misdirection in its own right, a second-order of misdirection; it would require us to listen to our listening, the ensemble of listenings, and their summing that is less than their parts (but more so).


[2] This contraction most often occurs as an unconscious reflex when one is exposed to loud sounds, thus protecting—though often belatedly, because it is slower than the speed of sound—the relatively delicate structures of the inner ear.

[3] I have substituted “determinable” and “indeterminable” for Boetzkes’s use of “visible” and “invisible” (in “Interpretation and the Affordance of Things”) in order to avoid certain confusions. While this substitution aligns—to my mind—with her argument in this case, this is not to suggest that it obtains more broadly. Clearly, Boetzkes’s work—in the cited chapter and elsewhere—works through the operations of (in)visibility in concert with specific aesthetic regimes of visibility as well as specific ocular and neuroscientific discourses related to the eye, none of which nuance would be captured in terminological substitution I’ve made here.

Rebekah Sheldon—Magic as Method: Ritual Sound, Queer Sex (TSpec3)

The first keynote of Tuning Speculation III! More to come forthwith!

This presentation sketches a speculative ontology of magic. It is a part of a broader investigation into 20th century Anglo-American queer magicians influenced by Aleister Crowley. In its fullest ambitions, the project looks to the nonrepresentational qualities of theurgic practice such as composition, movement gesture, sound, and rhythm to unfold a theory of and method for nonrepresentational criticism. Ritual practices such as these are explicitly calibrated to produce future effects. I argue that they implicate a performative causality markedly distinct from either representational modes of persuasion commonly employed by scholarly exposition or the embodied performativities theorized by queer studies. My project is not to produce knowledge about esoteric or scholarly traditions but to generate new intuitions from out of existing philosophical, literary, theoretical, and aesthetic modes and schemas.

My more limited remit in this talk responds to the following questions: What ontological conditions are necessary for us to be able to affirm the productivity of magic (and its nonrepresentational qualities) on the unfolding of the future? With what notions of causality and historicity? To think these things, I propose reconsidering the presumptive emptiness and passivity of the future. Rather than understanding the future as a necessary entelechy or as container for the present’s consequences, I offer a conception of the future as an active plenum rippling with the forces of distortion, iteration, resonance, and distribution. Giving flesh to this claim will occupy the first part of the talk and will lead me to topics as ostensibly distant from each other as feminist rereadings of the chora, philosophies of immanence, quantum physics, and sound studies. The second half of the talk will take up Kenneth Anger’s short film “Invocation of my Demon Brother” as a case study in the aesthetic-cum-magical torquing of the future and as an apt location to make good on the title’s promise to theorize the role of queer sex in ritual magic.