listen before you look

by jdavidcharles

That wren–

looking here, looking there.

You lose something?


Whenever we look around, cast our eyes from side-to-side, we are looking for something. We don’t need to know what, but something about directing our gaze over something communicates both to ourselves and everyone around us we are. Thus Issa can see the wren staring and know, instinctively, that something is lost to the wren. Likewise when my eyes pass over the scene at the coffee-shop, people cannot help but seem to respond inquisitively as to what I want of them; they respond, in turn, with a loss of there own, perhaps a loss as to why I am looking or what I am looking for. The man in the corner eyes a girl across the room and I know is looking for love–his gaze tells me so and I know by his very looking he feels he has a loss and is looking to satisfy it. Same with the couple arguing in the table in front of me. Each trying to search the other for meaning or something to convince him or her of the other’s point. Maybe the husband’s eyes communicate he has lost the relationship, he is cut off and refuses to allow the possibility that this person in front of him could be right.

This is the paradox of sight: the grand deception that in this loss, the essential lack of looking, I can find possession. I focus my eyes, my field of sight, on the refrigerator and I think I “know it,” I have somehow grasped it mentally, reflected it. Yet, as I said, this is an illusion because it does not account for the loss in vision. By looking at it I am already looking for it–I already have carved out in me the loss I am looking for. Think of the man in the corner eyeing the girl. He already has carved out mentally what it is he is looking for, a sort of recessive mold of the girl he feels he lacks and should “have.” He already possesses the loss–looking is merely an outward bearing of this “fore-having,” his already possessing the mental form. Yet, as we know, looking at her is not enough; whether his intentions are sinister or holy is irrelevant, on some level he wants to feel he “has” her, that he possesses her. And here is the paradox again, that sight is the outward bearing of a loss that simultaneously lays claim to or possesses the lost object.

And it is here, in the image of sight and illumination, that western metaphysical philosophy and subsequent discourses of reason find their beginning–that looking at the thing, making an assessment of it visually, has explained or in some way given the thing to me, object-ified it. Since the pre-Socratics light and vision have been the primary metaphor for thought: seeing the light of truth, seeing in light of something, light of the eye, the mind’s eye, etc. This paradox then is at the heart of ocularcentric thought, that in talking about the thing I bear a loss, an already carved out mental category or container for the thing, and proceed to argue to fill in this very loss. But, like the lone man in the corner, this attempt to exhaust any one thing is simply futile, he is only using his very loss to justify his loss to himself. Ocularcentric thought then can be characterized by reciprocal self-pity–this is why so many philosophic systems devolve into rank solipsism.

Ultimately then it is the illusion of possession we find in sight that brings us this paradox. If we could address the loss as a loss, with no since of entitlement or justification, then perhaps we, both on a personal and philosophic level, could overcome this paradox. Essentially this is what psychoanalysis is, the attempt to reveal the trauma, the wound, as essentially a lack or loss and deal with it rather than cover it up with self-pity, projection, deferral, etc. I think this sense of entitlement in vision stems in large part from visions limits, or, conversely, from our capacity to focus. As we said before looking is always a looking for, inherently expressing some loss. We only know one is gazing at us by the direction of the gaze–his or her eyes communicate to us that they are looking for us. It is in this “looking for” that we find entitlement, the man looking for just a certain type of woman he has already etched out in his mind, already possessed.

Listening differs drastically from sight in this way, I cannot help but take in all sounds equally. Sure, I could focus on one sound over another, I can listen to the refrigerator’s low hum but at the same time I cannot help but hear the lawn mower buzzing and birds chirping outside the window. And, it is true, I can also “listen for” sounds, as in the voyeur overhearing a private conversation. But this sort of listening is antithetical to listening as it usually is–we could say that these are visual metaphors we have taken up into listening (as likewise when we try with sight we can give up “looking for” things and merely take in the whole field of vision, not focusing or gazing, when we close our eyes for instance, but these are all atypical to seeing as such). For listening is always open-ended, many sounds pass through its field as expected but there are always unknown sounds, uncanny sounds, divine sounds. Listening does not lay claim to objects in the same way the gaze does, in fact, listening does not object-ify like vision does at all. Because listening is so much grounded in the temporal (my eyes can follow objects moving through time, but sounds come and go out of my aural field) often times we do not even classify sound phenomena as one or two “objects,” we simply let sounds sweep through us.

My solution to ocularcentric thought is not so much an answer then as a question. What would philosophy as listening look like? What if we stopped trying to explain or account for things as isolated objects but merely listened to them, in all their temporal and spatial instability? What would we hear with the mind’s ear? What would we see if we stopped looking?