Jean-Luc Nancy’s Listening and its resonances

(Trans. Charlotte Mandell, New York: Fordham University Press, 2007)


Nancy locates the dynamic of listening on the knife edge of the physical, concrete and material and that of the conceptual and the abstract. He writes of  ‘a tension and a balance between a sense (that one listens to) and a truth (that one understands)’ (2). Nancy proposes that in listening, both edges of this knife, the tensile balancing dynamic of listening, constitutes meaning.

Nancy asks ‘Why and how is it that something of perceived meaning has privileged a model, a support, or a referent in visual presence rather than acoustic presentation?’ (2-3) Presentation because presence in the acoustic sphere is one of constant referral and deferral. For Nancy presence in listening is ‘not being-present but rather  “in the presence of” not “in the view of” ‘ an ever shifting movement of ‘coming and passing’ , ‘extending and penetrating’ (13) . Presence is as Husserl framed, the retention of the past and the anticipation of the future. And meaning, as Derrida continued, follows this ever shifting play; it is not the grasped concept, the theoria – idea as image.  Where the eye turns outward and makes manifest; the ear turns inward and makes resonant. Listening is much more suited to the location and dislocation of meaning.  Nancy writes: ‘Shouldn’t truth itself as transitivity and incessant transition of a continual coming and going be listened to rather than seen?’ (4) Meaning is resonance.  Listening is an opening to resonance, an embodied resonance.

Listening is an intentionality figured through tension. Nancy writes that it is a ‘straining toward a possible meaning and consequently one that is not easily accessible’ (7). When we listen to the other we do not know what it is they say – we must hover in the space of uncertainty on that knife edge of sense in both senses of the word. We must stay within the space of resonance rather than muting this resonance into an object grasped. More often that not we do not listen to each other, we suck in the words of the other as quickly as we can and fix them in terms of a mental image that is familiar to us. Irigaray would consider this as taking the air from each other – suffocating the passage of breath of the other in order to maintain our comfort. But listening does not engage familiarity, rather it is as Nancy says ‘always to be on the edge of meaning’ (7). It is on this ‘edge’, this ‘margin’, this ‘fringe’ that we may engage life musically; that is we may engage a resonant meaning; a meaning found in resonance.

Listening is the apprehension of resonance, which is at once referral and deferral. A sound resounds in space and is never an ‘imaginary capture’ (10) that it is never caught in a fixed identity like that of the object of the gaze, rather its passage of resonance is appearance and disappearance, and the echo of transition. It is in this passage that the self is made and unmade. Following Derrida, the self is never identity or difference, but that play between the two: the différant. The resonance that listening engages, is not a metaphor for the production of the self, but rather a concrete realisation/derealisation of the self.

Meaning, sound and self are all resonance. They all share the space of referral. Nancy writes: ‘ Meaning consists in a reference [revoi]…it is made of a totality of referrals: from a sign to a thing, from a state of things to a quality, from a subject to another subject … sound is also made of referrals: it spreads in space, where it resounds while still resounding “in me” ‘ (7) Meaning and sound as referral are also ‘the space of a self’. Nancy writes: ‘the self is nothing other than a form or function of referral: a self is made of a relationship to self …which is nothing other that the mutual referral between a perceptible individuation and an intelligible identity.’ (8) The referral is always a deferral in time.

Where the visual produces a mimetic engagement with the world, the sound engages a dynamic of methexis. Nancy defines methexic as ‘having to do with participation, sharing or contagion’.(10) In mimesis we grasp the familiar object as both fixed and known. In methexis we share the shifting space of uncertainty – the straining toward understanding, the balancing at the margins. We share the breath between us in the mutual formation of our selves in resonance.The self one listens to is not a ‘me’ or a ‘you’ but the ‘relationship in self … as it forms a self’ (12). Communication for Nancy is not a transmission but a sharing and mutual making (41).

In listening, interior and exterior collide. Nancy writes: ‘To listen is to enter that spatiality by which at the same time, I am penetrated, for it opens up in me as well as around me as well as outside, and it is through such…[an] opening that the ‘self’ can take place’ (14). The self is thus both an interior and exterior spatialisation formed through resonance. Our innermost fingerprint, our voice, makes and remakes the self and the other through an interior and exterior spatialisation and the shifting play of referral and deferral.

Music, sound and voice all share the space of evocation. Nancy writes: ‘music (or even sound in general) is not exactly a phenomenon … it does not stem from a logic of manifestation. It stems from a different logic, which would have to be called evocation … evocation summons (convokes, invokes) presence to itself’ (20). The mother’s voice is an extension of the infant’s and the infant’s an extension of the mother’s; sound tells us we are here, but in a place different from where we are now. Evocation is ‘a call and, in the call, breath, exhalation, inspiration and expiration … a pressure, an impulsion’ (20). Nancy writes: ‘Lacan calls the voice “the alterity of what is said”: what in the saying is other than what is said’. The voice produces the relationality of resonance that continually makes and unmakes the self.

To listen is to touch and be touched by the truth of resonance. For Nancy, music most intimately engage this truth. He writes: ‘Music is the art of resonance: a sense that does not makes sense except because of its resounding in itself. It calls to itself and recalls itself, reminding itself and by itself, each time, of the birth of music, that is to say the opening of the world in resonance, a world taken away from the arrangements of objects and subjects, brought back to its own amplitude and making sense or else having its truth only in the affirmation that modulates this amplitude’ (67). To listen is to engage an expansive, open mode of being; to engage the world musically, where there is no longer the distinct forms of I and you and a me and a it, an inside and and outside but rather a continually forming formlessness.

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