The Exuberant Silence of an Overabundant Life

Review of All Ears: The Aesthetics of Espionage by Peter Szendy, Translated by Roland Végső

"They might listen if I make no sound."

(Agnes Obel, “Mary,” Citizen of Glass)

The listener crouches behind the text, and though he listens alone, it would not be quite right to say that there is not a sense of timidity in the subtle voyeurism of the act. Reading theory seems so often like this - a listening, perhaps too closely, and whatever we are able to say after all has been overheard, we spend hours in the play of listening itself, hoping (sometimes beyond hope) of encountering the thread of the whole or the significant detail that unlocks the work’s hidden scheme. We go unseen, our ears attuned to the voice of the one confessing a thought - not unlike the Stasi agent in the attic eavesdropping on the radical playwright’s intimate conversations in The Lives of Others - and in the listening we hope to gain mastery, control. And yet, we hear so much, even at times too much to hear anything particular at all. We walk away from the listening - a detail or two returns. We listen carefully to the grainy recording of our own listening.

If we can say that such a description fits the act of reading theory at all, then it is certainly a unique instance of such eavesdropping to read Peter Szendy’s All Ears: The Aesthetics of Espionage, now in English translation by UNL’s own Roland Végső1. In this book dedicated to Jacques Derrida and offered as a kind of memorial to the great theorist, Szendy sets out to read the act of listening following similar approaches made by Derrida to the act of seeing. Or, to put it more precisely, and in line with a Derridean approach, Szendy’s book is about “impossible listening. About overhearing as something that is possible only as impossible” (xii). In his analysis of listening, Szendy uncovers the structural symmetry between listening in general and espionage. Hearing is always an overhearing (surécoute): an eavesdropping and an excess of listening, both of which involve the gathering of as many details of information as the listener can. Yet in this listening like spies, listening becomes impossible, shot through with the aporias of a control that eludes us, such that the listening of the other inscribes itself on our own act of listening, infinitely dividing the listening activity: “His ear in the hollow of my ear” (121).

The listener who listens to this book in Végső’s translation enacts, in a way, what is at the core of the book’s argument: that listening as such to the voice of the first speaker is always impossible as a simple act of reception, that the practice of attempting to gain mastery through a surplus of listening over what is uttered is always outside the capacity of the ear that has encountered the ear of the other. Rather, as Végső points out in his translator’s note, we listen to the translator listening to the one who speaks about what he hears, but in recording these transmissions from the wiretap, the translator asks that we readers “listen for the hidden noise of the other’s murmur masked by the rumble of translation without giving in to the temptation of full mastery” (xvii). Végső notes that such a task “constitutes the politics of listening as well as the politics of translation” (ibid.).

Certainly it must be time for an ameliorative politics of listening. It takes the least bit of espionage to discover that we, at least in America, have a difficult time truly encountering the ear of the other, seeking to hear what the other hears and to allow it to transform our own practices of reception. Meanwhile, with the explosion of surveillance technologies in recent decades as well as the revelations of such sweeping surveillance projects that Edward Snowden brought to public recognition, it seems that edifices of political power have no difficulty overhearing and have virtually made all spaces of vocalization into spaces susceptible to controlling modulation: through the big ears of control, the ears of the listener and her other are pitted against each other into a state of pink noise, from which nothing significant can be drawn.

Szendy figures this state of power relations as regards the politics of listening within the redoubled shift from disciplinary society, as theorized by Foucault, to a society of control, as articulated in Deleuze’s elaboration on Foucault’s genealogy of strategies of power. As a companion to the disciplinary panopticon that Foucault drew from Bentham’s model of a prison in which all can be seen by the watchman though the watchman can be seen by none, Szendy discusses the notion of a panacousticon, already imagined by Bentham and yet left mostly unelaborated: “a simultaneously pandirectional and selective megaphone of sorts: a Panacousticon that facilitates communication and transmission between observer and observed in the context of efficiently organized labor” (20). The presence of the panacousticon, like the panopticon, would be apparent to the prisoners and so would function, as Bentham says, not like a “spy” but like a “monitor” (qtd. ibid.). Yet Szendy makes clear that in this premonitory conception of surveillance’s monitoring function, the sort of listening which occurs does belong to the discourse of espionage in that it seeks to gather intelligence in order to modulate control, rather than to instruct or to enforce the individual organized movements of bodies. “It is not unthinkable that, in modern espionage, access to latent secrets becomes indistinguishable from the observation of patent actions like the ones Bentham described. So much so that the distinction between spy and monitor becomes fragile if not impossible” (21).

Yet there is a problem in the mechanism that Bentham identifies and Szendy interrogates - namely, that the panacousticon can loopback on itself. The prisoners may listen in on the guards as much as the guards have been overhearing the prisoners. In this reversed schema, all listening parties become double agents. The impossibility of listening arrives in listening’s constant self-division as the ear of the listener regards the ear of the listener she listens to.

Listening finds itself caught in a trap - it is constituted by a feedback loop of overhearing and is therefore impossible. The listener loses control of the listened-to; the listener is no longer sovereign but a hunted prey like the rest. Szendy attunes his ear to the way this fear of the feedback loop immunizes itself by internalizing the threat, for instance, in the way music listens to itself by anticipating the ear of the listener and establishing a structural distance from which it is to be listened to. “Even before being listened to by someone, even before becoming an object of an empirical listening, music itself listens and even listens to itself, according to its distant listening, this telelistening that would be its own” (38). The distant listening may play out in a couple of ways. When a work seeks to maintain the sovereignty of its order, to treat itself as a stable site of confinement, it sets the listener at a distance, ensuring that the whole of the musical piece is heard in order that its totalizing formal structure may be heard as though at once. Yet as the nature of listening is clearly constituted by an overhearing feedback loop, this immunitary distance becomes self-defeating. Like Bentham’s prison, it has internalized the threat such that it listens as it is listened to.

Alternatively, and more apropos of societies of control in which sites of confinement have become porous and open, broken down, the music plays in improvisations and a transformation of new and unexpected details, such that the listener must listen closely, as a hunting dog following the scent of a rabbit. This music eludes representation. Its point-of-listening (as a play on point-of-view) is located very close to the fluid surface. It skips and turns as though anticipating one who would overhear and follow.

Szendy continues his discussion of points-of-listening through cinema as well, keying in on the nature of surveillance, of auditory archiving and overhearing, as a condition of narrative for a variety of works, ranging from Coppola’s The Conversation to Lang’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Lynch’s Lost Highway, and De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise, all of which draw out the contradictions involved in listening as espionage. Lacking the space here to discuss these, I would like to key in on Szendy’s discussion of the “mortal ear” (69) in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and how this thought of the mortal ear threads its way through to a final excursus on a passage by Derrida.

What is at stake here is what occurs on the edge of sound, how listening responds, through reaching to overhear, that which is beyond the scope of a focused listening. In L’Orfeo, Orpheus loses his love Eurydice because, as he fails to keep his gaze fixed forward, he turns, only to see her fade irrevocably into the dark of death and oblivion. Yet in this opera, Orpheus’s failure is not one of gaze but of listening. He suffers the defect of a mortal ear, a mortal listening (69). He hears a sound from offstage, breaking his song and his listening, and he turns.

Music, personified in the opera, raises her voice powerfully over the narrative, and when she pauses, all are silent, revealing her apparently supreme power. “As Music herself explains, under her authority, in the kingdom of her absolute power, a perfect silence reigns as it must reign around her sovereign song. So, even the stream to which she owes her mythical origin must fall silent, since at this point in the score, right after designating listening (s’oda), there is a remarkable emphatic pause, a resounding silence” (68). Music’s silence in that moment enacts her sovereignty, that she can command an absolute listening precisely in those moments in which she utters no sound. However, the mortal ear of Orpheus embodies the limit of Music’s power. Orpheus listens to himself sing music about his love and yet his mortal listening leads him astray: it is in listening to his own song that he begins to doubt Eurydice’s presence, his overhearing of himself that makes an opening for his mortal ear to emerge, interrupting the music and costing Orpheus his love (70). The mortal ear of the listener, distracted by its own practice of listening, constitutes the point of powerlessness for a song that would command a certain sort of listening. When listening becomes overhearing, it takes only the littlest clatter from the eaves to produce the impossibility of listening’s power.

Music succeeds where it can enforce silence - that sound which is excluded by its own nature - but it fails where a listener would seek to hear too much, at which point the listener hears nothing, and in the tracks of Orpheus, loses everything, all control. It was because Orpheus “wanted to hear everything and see everything: He wanted to hear and see Eurydice as well as himself, the one who is following him as well as the one who is leading her” that he lost control, “hung up in an excess of listening” (115). At that point, Echo arrives to sing back to him the pieces of his broken song, the fragmented details of the song he had been following. He has lost the whole, and so he receives the details, the broken bits of sound and song.

“At the point where overhearing encounters its limit, where it ruins itself, it ends up announcing the deconstruction or the disenchantment of every ‘dream of a general theory’, of a ‘complete inspection,’ of every panacoustic telelistening” (116). The feedback loop of listening, as overhearing, breaks down the possibility of listening’s sovereignty, and in its breaking down, only fragments of its Icharus-wings return - yet return enlarged, almost mockingly.

But what of silence? What does listening do in silence? We may think of the silence as that which follows the song - “the aftermath of the after-all” (116) that is the site in which the revenant fragments return and expand to fill all of the sonic space - the limit of the song that determines the song. Perhaps silence is the end of listening, not an end as in a cessation, but an end as in a fulfillment. If listening is impossible because it becomes an overhearing, then listening becomes impossibly actualized at the precise point at which it ceases to listen. The listening ends itself in silence, and the ear becomes immortal. Szendy quotes at length from a rare passage in which Derrida discusses sound and music, but bound up in this passage is the interplay between silence and music, a silence that is death, but a death of the self that is being resurrected through wonderful sound. It is a non-immunized self, not seeking control, but being “safe, in music” (119) - a music that brings death to the self through every breath, produces silence, and resurrects the self with every breath, “posthumously” (119).

What allows our listening to be immortal, perhaps, is the resting in sound and silence, rather than incessant information-scrounging. In this way, we do not seek control, do not work to propagate the modulations of hegemonic power by penetrating our wiretaps into the intimate spaces of those with whom we share the world. We enjoy - we do not bother. We rest, as Derrida puts it, “without redemption but greeting the life of the other living in the secret sign and the exuberant silence of an overabundant life” (qtd. 119).

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1 Szendy, Peter. All Ears: The Aesthetics of Espionage. Trans. Roland Végső. New York: Fordham UP, 2017.

Photo Sources: Flickr, Dennis Skley; Amazon

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