A Pause for Thought
A lot of inspiration has been breathing through me this semester and it’s time I catch this blog up to speed!
I spent the last season exploring the intersection of ecology, philosophy, and music in an independent study with Sam Mickey, an adjunct lecturer in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program at CIIS, as well as an adjunct professor in the Theology and Religious Studies department at the University of San Francisco. I proposed the independent study to Sam after taking his FANTASTIC spring course on ecopoetics. My focus in the final essay of ecopoetics was on a philosophical exchange between the transdisciplinary artist Björk and eco-philosopher Timothy Morton for the way their dialogue illuminates the ecological valence of Björk’s work, specifically in her most recent album “Utopia.” I argued that Björk’s music could be thought of as an exemplary form of philosophy from an ecological perspective—philosophy as “ecopoetic spellwork.” What do I mean by “ecopoetic?” Well, in this context, “I refer to any experience, evocation, or consideration of nature’s relational (ecological), semiotic creativity in and through human and nonhuman beings alike—a vast designation!”
This initial exploration ended up being very fruitful for my own philosophical perspective and inquiry around ecological art-making. Aside from my writing, I have not been actively making art since finishing my undergraduate degree in film production. I moved all the way to the Bay Area for the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness (PCC) program at CIIS and the possibility it presented to me for deepening into my questions about the role of art in confronting the ecological crisis. What emerged from my consideration of Björk and Morton was a way of thinking about meaning that respects the continuity between human culture and nature: thinking as a listening, meaning understood musically. Finally my art medium ambivalence finds a resting place, one that extends the affect of art beyond its culturally inscribed scope of influence. Ecologized art in the multimedia form of music, song, dance, and performance echoes the origins of art in religion and resounds with all the efficacy it once took as self-evident. When philosophy is a listening—when ontology is thought through our sense of sound—art recovers its magical, incantatory power. Dimly I held these threads in mind as I began my independent study; with the help of Sam’s feedback and textual suggestions, I would encounter many thinkers whose ideas would help to sound out the music my own thoughts were beginning to attune to. The philosopher David Michael Kleinberg-Levin was one of those thinkers with whom I especially resonated. In what follows I engage with his wonderful text The Listening Self and present singing as a form of art that is particularly amenable to being conceived ecologically and for that reason instructive to artists attempting to re-conceive other mediums ecologically. Preceding my essay is a more general talk I gave on Kleinberg-Levin’s text while at Esalen during PCC’s fall retreat.
Singing Beyond the Human
What kind of art breathes through the artifactual bounds of human culture? All arts, one might say, simply through their material consequences in the webwork of ecology. More pointedly, then, I ask: what kind of art breathes through the artifactual bounds of human culture with an aspiration of reciprocity with the nonhuman world? Singing! Singing, I say! Singing because singing requires foremost that the singer be adept at listening. The song to unfold shall sing a way of being that is simultaneously a listening, an attunement, and a singing—a way of thinking experience ecologically while still maintaining the difference (though porous) between self and other. By extension, the physical practice of singing proves to be particularly suited to instruct an ecological reorientation of the arts, one that is more truly a recovery of indigeneity than the latest innovation in progress.
When I finally committed to singing lessons, I did not anticipate that the biggest challenge to face would be learning how to listen. “Yaaaaaaaaa,” sings my teacher S. in her mixed register. Stalling, I overthink how to match her—imagining the mimesis as a mechanical computation of the mind that I can’t get right. “You don’t trust yourself,” she often reminds me, encouraging me to just let go. Indeed, the ability to relax enough to let the sound resonate inside before trying to harmonize is crucial, but hard to achieve for a body so conditioned by oculocentric thinking. In his text The Listening Self, David Kleinberg-Levin identifies oculocentrism as the visual bias reigning over Western conceptual thought since the Greeks, a tendency informed by what he calls the “ego-logical” structure of subject-object perception. “It is easier,” writes Kleinberg-Levin, “for us to shut our eyes than close our ears. It is easier for us to remain untouched and unmoved by what we see than by what we hear; what we see is kept at a distance, but what we hear penetrates our entire body.” Vision, therefore, is the preferred sense for the egoic will to power, the subject’s dominion over objects. The gaze splits two ways: practically, through the subject’s objectification of all that is not itself in the activity of use, and theoretically, through a totalizing conception of and closure to Being. They go hand-in-hand. Kleinberg-Levin refers to the latter as a
frontal ontology, an ontology of entities which, at least in the ideal situation, are held ‘front and centre’: in the most ideal act of beholding, the object is to be held in place directly before the eyes… the metaphysics of vision… tends to overvalue constancy, uniformity, permanence, unity, totality, clarity, and distinctness…the nature of the visionary situation is such that the gaze always inhabits a field of contemporaneously coexisting entities, more or less immediately in continuous view, constant beholding…[and] encourages a metaphysics of presence, a discourse of speculative thinking in which the apparently real panoptical omnipresence is reflected — and not only reflected, but projected the absolute truth.
The frontal ontology sired by oculocentric bias translates into computational learning processes in which “getting it right,” being in accord with absolute truth, serves as the key to winning the prize. My preoccupation with “getting it right” in the process of miming S. short-circuits my capacity to be fully present with the feeling of her resounding voice—closing me off from the vibrancy of Being. Learning to sing, it turns out, necessitates a more receptive orientation to lived experience than oculocentrism allows for. I must instead open myself up to Being, surrendering my egoic compulsion for control to the ecstatic dimension of sound. “Unlike the things that we see,” writes Kleinberg-Levin,
things that endure in the contemporaneous coexistence of spatial entities and belong to the ‘omnipresence’ of space itself, sounds are transitory and impermanent, ever insubstantial, belonging to the realm of temporality: they cannot be grasped, held, possessed…the nature of sound deconstructs the ego’s sense of identity, its sense of itself as a substantial self-grounded subjectivity, enjoying an undisputed certainty in a world under its control.
Learning to sing—learning to listen, to resonate as and with other sounds—opens the possibility of conceptualizing ourselves differently. Explicit in the listening (rather than the seeing) self is its inherence in a web of vibrating relationships, relationships that, taken together, constitute the ecological matrix of Being. In the developmental scheme Kleinberg-Levin traces, the ego-logical structure of subject-object perception is a stage that enables the individual to differentiate itself from others and to survive. Our individual “sense of self,” writes Levin, “is formed through difference: difference in interactions with others, but also difference in interactions with the objective world.” Through the mirroring of others—of the world itself—we come to know ourselves, a process which potentiates a
compelling disclosure of our primordial sociality: a disclosure that enables the ego it has produced to overcome its narcissistic impulses, and that consequently frees it to continue its individuation, beyond socially imposed roles, by taking part in the communicativeness and reciprocities of a social existence.
Implicit in the very possibility of ego construction, then, is its overcoming through the intercorporeal, ecological ground of its existence, what forms the basis of our intersubjectivity. Sociality, as Kleinberg-Levin has it, is primordial—ontological: thus, we always have a sense of our inherence in the ecology of Being, albeit dimly, in a forgotten way. The former is what Kleinberg-Levin refers to as “pre-ontological understanding,” a phase that can only be brought to awareness through incorporation—taking on the body of difference—down the path of individuation. “Paradoxically,” Kleinberg-Levin writes, “the incorporation is a forgetting which makes a belated recollection possible.”
I must hold multiple registers of focus in tandem during my singing lesson: my breathing, the expansion of my ribcage, lifted vocal folds, a clear mind, and an acute feeling for the sound. More often than not, I stumble in the juggle. My worst habit is doubt, manifested in a complicated relationship to breath. I can’t attend to my breathing without trying to control it, resulting in inhales that are much too large and exhales that pale in comparison. I get lighted-headed and become anxious, dissociating from the moment at hand. “Where are you going? You’re leaving your body again! Why don’t you just tell yourself that you’re aware of your breath? Then all your problems will be solved.” The first few times S. suggests I tell myself something like this I proceed to do it aloud right then, but her smirks gradually make me realize that what she means has more to do with trust than following her command like a parrot. My compulsion to control my breath arises from—I believe—a mistaken, semi-unconscious assumption about my ontology: I, an autonomous ego, am on one side of existence, the world and all its contents (my body included) is on the other. Yet, time and time again I am forced (by the breathing panic) to realize that my breath derives from and depends upon an entire atmosphere that transcends my individuality. This, allied with a nod to the brilliance explicit in my own organism, “involuntarily” breathing myself even when I’m not paying attention! But how can I consciously entrust myself to what is beyond my control?
Coming to conscious awareness of my breath and its implications for the way I conceive my existence is expressive of what Kleinberg-Levin designates as the ontological culmination of Being in humankind: hearkening. Our hearing, so it goes, is a gift that makes a religious claim on us, luring us to deepen our feeling capacity enough to remember who we are. As infants “our hearing may be said to inhere in, and be attuned by, the field of sonorous Being as a whole: the infant lives in a bodily felt inherence in the openness of the sonorous matrix and hears with—and through—the entire body. The infant’s ears are the body as a whole.” Our primordial attunement by and to the undulating, breathing fabric of Being is the dim memory and pre-ontological understanding of wholeness—a gift and a calling. Hearkening is the heeding of the gift, embodied in the kind of holistic listening required for the practice of singing. However, for hearkening to be achieved, our listening must be cultivated beyond just biological development, raising pre-ontological understanding into awareness through its retrieval, what Kleinberg-Levin describes as an appropriation:
a claim (Anspruch) which calls for its proper or appropriate ‘use.’ This ‘use’ is a recollection of Being which retrieves the pre-ontological understanding of Being, the poorly understood relationship with Being always and already implicate in our hearing, and gives back to the primordial Es gibt of Being…the gift of its audibility in the world of our dwelling. When we lend our ears to such a recollection of Being, our listening becomes properly attuned, properly thoughtful: it becomes an ‘authentic hearing’…And this is the achievement of ‘hearkening’.
When I surrender the compulsion to control my breath through the realization that I derive from processes that transcend my individuality, but which ultimately connect me ecstatically to the whole cosmos, I am hearkening. When I bring this awareness into my practice of singing, I am hearkening. If I keep up my practice, I edge closer to the potential of seeing through the subject-object structure of perception and begin to abide in a “guardian awareness” of “just listening,” an interested, yet equanimous
awareness of the intertwining of subject and object: their differential interplay. It is by virtue of the subject’s playful openness to the matrix of sound, the sheer vibrancy of the field as a whole, that this intertwining, this interplay of identity and difference, oneness and twoness, is realized.
Kleinberg-Levin is careful not to reduce the ultimacy of perception to idealistic monism or a complete dualism. Instead, the ontological difference is maintained and can actually be heard as a double-tone “manifesting in, and as, the local dimensions of a figure-ground difference. ‘Just listening’ takes us into the interplay, where the two dimensions of difference can also sound as one.” Easier said than done! “An awakened attention, that’s what you need when you’re here,” says S. in frustration, “and you don’t have it.” “So how to cultivate that…? Meditation?” I ask, hopeful. “I don’t know—what takes you out?” “Takes me out?” “Yeah, what takes you away from your ability to listen and reproduce what you’re hearing?” A long pause elapses. “You have to find that out,” says S., ending our session for the day.
S.’s question intersects with the question I posed at the beginning of this essay: what kind of art breathes through the artifactual bounds of human culture with an aspiration of reciprocity with the nonhuman world? The bodily form of listening demanded by the discipline of singing carries the potential for me to become sensitive enough to feel my inherence—and affect—in the sonic field of my context. Implied in that sensitivity is my openness to being affected by others—a vulnerability. Indeed, as Kleinberg-Levin understands it, hearkening represents the
greatest opening to Being of which we are capable, it is a mode of perceptiveness that we can achieve only by cultivating our capacity for feeling and restoring the connection between feeling and listening…we need to learn a listening which listens with this bodily felt sense. In other words, we need to cultivate a listening that is deeply rooted in our body’s felt sense of situated being.
Restoring, as Kleinberg-Levin writes, “our body’s felt sense of situated being” is exactly the kind of response necessary to engage the ecological crisis we collectively face. I must become response-able to my local nexus, sensitive enough to discern its needs; aware of the fact that simply by existing, I impact others. Hearkening, Kleinberg-Levin writes,
ultimately calls for a calm, relaxed, well-balanced state, body and mind. The more this state is achieved, the easier it becomes to neutralize the polarizing internationalities of desire, the vectors of attraction and aversion which bind our everyday hearing to the ego-logically constituted structure of subject and object.
The ravenous pace of industrial civilization and the exploitative nature of capitalism tremendously hamper our capacity to slow down long enough to feel, let alone neutralize our anxieties and cravings. Time and safety are privileges most people don’t have; and even when they do, the effects of trauma—so ubiquitous in civilization, especially among the oppressed—prevent individuals from emotionally embracing safety and stillness if and when they become options. Speaking for myself, I consider S.’s question: “what takes you away from your ability to listen and reproduce what you’re hearing?” I answer through the rationale of trauma’s echo: my impulse to control my body and to dissociate were once useful survival strategies, but have now become maladaptive. I have the privilege of safety today and it is incumbent on me to bring my entire psychosomatic being into the present—not just for my own happiness, but to heed the responsibility I have for the welfare of others. If, as Kleinberg-Levin suggests, we can “overcome attendant anxieties and dissolve unnecessary defenses. And as our ego-logical obsessions are given up, a guardian awareness of the ground, the sonorous atmosphere as a whole, slowly beings to grow.”
Hearkening, for Kleinberg-Levin, is not a state of being that is reached with any finality, nor is its proper end in contemplative withdrawal, but figures instead as an ongoing practice of deep listening for the cultivation of a more porous subjectivity, radically bound up with the world and its many sounding inhabitants. “In the final phase of recollecting,” writes Kleinberg-Levin, “we return to the world, carrying within us, like a song, the vibrancy of Being. And to the extent that we can make this song audible to others, we gather them, too, into the vitality of the primordial recollection.” When I practice being a listening self, rather than a defensive ego, my thinking—attuned as it is by the dimensionality of Being—remembers itself as a singing of Being and enjoins a choir of others in the vibrancy of the uni-verse. Taken this way, the physical practice of singing breaks through the artifactual bounds of human culture, vibrating with the nonhuman world, and paves the way for other arts to understand their practices ecologically.
Levin, David Michael. The Listening Self: Personal Growth, Social Change, and The Closure of Metaphysics. New York: Routledge Press, 1989.
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