The Art of Listening

This is a preface to the new Japanese edition of Les Back’s The Art of Listening, published by Serica Shobo and translated by Dr Takeshi Arimoto. It is republished here with permission. 

Since its publication in 2007, The Art of Listening has been read enthusiastically by students and young scholars but ignored largely by Professors of Sociology and the discipline’s ‘big names’.  The response from younger readers has been nothing short of astonishing.  One wrote in an email that the book was so exhilarating to read that they felt compelled to take it for a walk out into the streets of London, where they could feel the textures of city life while they turned its pages.

A reviewer for the British Journal of Sociology commented that sociology students were so enthused by the book that they were encouraging their parents to read it.  The book somehow captured the imagination of younger readers trying to use sociology and cultural studies to make sense of their lives.  Reflecting on it now, I think I was subconsciously aiming the book at a younger audience all along, so in a sense it should be of no surprise that it resonated with them rather than established scholars.   It is a book that asks the big questions about the value and purpose of what we do as thinkers, researchers and writers.

I was mindful too that in publishing a book that is very personal and unguarded, that tried to stretch the parameters of what sociology can be beyond current academic conventions, I took a risk.  In the final stages of its completion in 2006 I had a moment when I lost my nerve. Did I really want to speak openly about intimate relationships within my own family and also be quite so reckless and blunt about intellectual and political commitments?

As the first principle of their craft academic readers are trained to be unforgiving critics.  Clouded by anxiety I toyed with withdrawing the manuscript just at the moment when it was ready to be submitted for publication. In the end, I decided to let it go.  The Art of Listening was the only thing I had to say, the only book I had in me to write.  Publishing it was a turning point for me, a kind of intellectual and personal crossroads.  I would like to just make a few points of introduction for Japanese readers about what was at stake for me in writing this book and why it might also speak to their concerns too.

By the beginnings of the 21st Century the authority of humanistic sociology had been challenged profoundly. Humanism’s hubris was cut down to size by a wide variety of thinkers like Michel Foucault, Gayatri Spivak and Bruno Latour for its Eurocentrism, sexism and its conceit for the non-human world. Also, the claim that social researchers had privileged access to social reality was undermined once and for all.   It was irrefutably established that researchers made social realities through their endeavours rather than simply reflect them as society’s mirror.  The question remained: how do we continue with our research craft in the aftermath of the deconstruction of the implication of power and knowledge in social science?

At the time of writing The Art of Listening these arguments seemed intellectually right but actually not a very good way to live as a scholar committed to public conversation and dialogue. What was left in its place seemed to me like a cold-hearted social science which reified impersonal critical distance.  So much of the ‘big stuff’ of life – love and loss – simply became inadmissible or dismissed as sentimental.   I wanted to try and write a book that would make the experience of life and the public issues contained in personal troubles admissible again, even if it was for no one else except myself.

As you will read this book emerged out of a moment of personal grief and a sense of biographical dislocation. Writing it was an attempt to build a bridge made of words that could span the huge social chasm between working-class London life and the bourgeois academic world of the University.  In a way a scholarly vocation provided a way for me to retain a connection to the working-class world that I left behind as a young man for a new life at the University. The book is both facilitated and limited by that experience in ways that still remain a mystery to me but I do not want to hide from that fact.

Looking back on it now the book offers a series of ‘listening lessons’. The first relates to politics. Our political debates do not suffer from too much doubt but from too much certainty. The task of thinking is to live with doubt in the service of understanding, rather than living with certainty in the preservation of ignorance. Name-calling is not thinking. The temptation to dismiss the view of one’s opponents as “rubbish” is strong but misguided for two reasons. Dismissing racist views, for example, as drivel does nothing to evaluate and understand their resonance or reach. It is for this reason that, though I’ve spent much of my adult life fighting against racism, I no longer subscribe to the “no platform” argument with regard to racists. We need to know what a racist argument sounds like. This is not the same as saying that organisations like Uyoku dantai, or Japan’s newly confident nationalists who want to revise World War II history, should be offered a comfortable seat at the table of public debate.  Rather, it means paying close attention to what they say and subjecting the content to critical judgment.

Reducing opposing views to rubbish produces encamped positions that actually stop listening. It forecloses critical thinking – they simply need no further attention other than being consigned to the category of waste to be disposed. We have to pay attention to those voices that seem abhorrent because understanding is not the same as agreement or justification. What does the racist graffiti being daubed over the walls of Tokyo’s Shin-Okubo district, where Tokyo’s Korean community live, tell us about Japanese racism?  Or, what does the vandalism of hundreds of copies of Anne Frank’s Diary in Tokyo’s Metropolitan Library indicate about the targets of the ultra-nationalist imagination?

Politicians like to threaten us with listening. Tony Blair was very fond of this and part of the problem with the very idea of listening in a political context is that there is something very suspicious about it. It was strategist British Philip Gould who made the “focus group” a strategic resource for Blair’s New Labour project. Political focus groups are not really about the kind of attention I am arguing for. Their function is to “sound out” the voters in order to fine-tune party political rhetoric in order to manipulate very select groups of the electorate to do the politician’s bidding, i.e. vote for them. Rather, the political lesson at the heart of this book is that we have to listen to our enemies as well as our friends in order to understand critically the world that each of us forms a part.

Our second lesson is that we must strive to develop a prosaic and everyday ethics of attentiveness. “You do not interest me. No man can say these words to another without committing a cruelty and offending against justice,” writes philosopher Simone Weil. To turn a deaf ear is an offence not only to the ignored person but also to thinking and justice. Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner is cursed because no one will listen to his story. The Italian chemist-turned-writer Primo Levi was preoccupied with this fable because of his fear that on returning from Auschwitz people like him would be either ignored or simply disbelieved. Regardless, listening gets a very mixed press amongst critics and intellectuals. There is a suspicion of wistful optimism or the quasi-religious appeal to ‘hold hands’ and play priest at the confessional.

These qualms miss the centrality of listening in dialogue that is not merely about consensus or agreement but engagement and criticism. This is something that Primo Levi understood. Faussone, the hero of Levi’s novel The Wrench, is a difficult man. An itinerant rigger, he spent his life travelling the cities of the world operating high-rise cranes. Despite the dramatic nature of his adventures Faussone is not a natural storyteller.

The novel’s narrator comments on how tempting it is to interrupt him, put words in his mouth and spoil his stories before they have even been told. He comes to realise: “Just as there is an art of storytelling, strictly codified through a thousand trails and errors, so there is also an art of listening, equally ancient and noble, but as far as I know, it has never been given any norm.”

The quiet patience required to invite the story’s telling makes an important contribution to its content. For, as Levi writes, “a distracted or hostile audience can unnerve any teacher or lecturer; a friendly public sustains.” The listener’s art for Primo Levi is practiced through abstaining from speech and allowing the speaker to be heard. Listening is active, a form of attention to be cultivated.

Inspired by Primo Levi, this entails tuning our ears differently. A good starting point would be to stop talking over each other. Listen to your own voice and develop a mild aversion to it. Hearing yourself recorded on a dictaphone is a good way to achieve this. It may produce a situation where we become more judicious, careful and measured in what we say, and more able to stop talking and listen. Like Levi’s narrator in The Wrench we must resist the temptations of interjection or ventriloquism.

The main lesson offered here is that listening is not merely the instrumental extraction of information or a matter of “ticking the box” of consultation. Or, the wounding compassion that has been directed at the citizens of Japan – often coloured with an Orientalist sense of Japanese stoicism– in the face of recent natural and man-made disasters. This active listening creates another set of social relations and ultimately a new kind of society, if only temporarily. This is not about making people “nice”, although it might make those who like to parade their superior intelligence less insufferable. Rather, it is a way to develop a more searching critical engagement with the kinds of human beings we have become.

The Art of Listening argues for a kind of intellectual craft that is vital and lively. One that is both inventive in terms of its methods and techniques but also restless in its search for new forms that sociology and cultural studies might take. One in which we can develop ways to represent our multicultural realities, for a in a hyper-connected world we all need to learn to live with difference. Here attentiveness becomes a vocation, as we notice and question what is before us.

John Berger once commented that translation is an act of smuggling.  The translator sneaks ideas and thoughts across the border of one linguistic territory into another language. I deeply grateful for the effort and time this takes and for Takeshi Arimoto’s careful, patient and rigorous work to smuggle these words and ideas into the Japanese language and make them available to you.  I would also like to thank Hiroki Ogasawara for his guidance.  I hope the sensibilities of this book are useful in some way as you grapple with the urgent task of understanding what is alive in our damaged and mortified world.  Also, that reading this book will compel you – like the young student in London – to test its usefulness by taking its ideas for a walk through the streets of Kobe, Fukuoka or Tokyo.

Les Back has been teaching in the Sociology Department at Goldsmiths, University of London since 1993. His main areas of academic interest are the sociology of racism, multiculture, popular culture, music and sound studies and city life.


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