Jean-Luc Nancy, a former student of French deconstructive philosopher Jacques Derrida, opens his book on listening by wondering if philosophy is capable of it, suggesting that “understanding” tends to displace “listening” in the discipline (he draws on the double sense of the French “entendre,” which means both “to hear” and “to understand,” and contrasts it with “écouter,” “to listen”). Literary critics such as J. Hillis Miller and Catherine Belsey have reflected on reading in a similar vein, since it seems to veer between the poles of readerly projection into a text (fantasmatic “understanding” in Nancy’s sense of the latter term, in which the reader finds only what he anticipated in the words of the text) and ideological subjection to a text (with “interpellation” the inverse of understanding, in which the text “comprehends” the reader, taking hold of him or her, as the etymology of the word indicates, commanding submission to its sense and effects—the root of “obey” is in the Latin for “to listen, to lend an ear to, pay attention to,” as if to hear were always already to obey). If psychoanalysis is “the talking cure,” it presumes a listener as Nancy envisions the latter, one who does not rush to understand and impose an interpretation but who instead listens with an evenly suspended attention to everything, with an open mind, all ears, on the lookout (“être à l’écoute”) without quite knowing for what, rather than a little bit deaf to anything other than what the analyst expected or hoped to hear (as in counter-transference, when he projects his own desires onto the analysand in response to the latter’s transferential projections). Nancy’s argument overall is that the senses, including the auditory, must not only “make sense,” or “logos,” but also “sense” or perceive, dwelling with the anxiety arising from an open receptivity to or “resonance” with the world experienced before experience is named and understood, its power to communicate–to connect and move–in surprising ways defensively defused.
If listening to speech strains toward a sense beyond sound, as if speech were first music, and listening to music strains toward a sound beyond sense, as if music always said something–as when it is used to mobilize identities through marches and national anthems–listening aims at or is aroused by the reverberation of sound and sense in and through each other, which produces a crisis of self as an intelligible identity. This notion of listening resonates with Lacan’s discussion of the voice as “objet (petit) a”—object (little) a—the cause of desire as a lack of satisfaction, which sustains the circulation of the invocatory drive around it. Listening subjects do not always hear what they want to—and do not even want to hear what they think they want to; their ears strain to catch unsettling frequencies. Reason is thus undone by resonance, “on edge,” as Nancy says, because on the edge of meaning, sound sensed, not simply made sense of. The subject of listening is finally an echo chamber, summoned by the sounds of the world which resound in it without definitively naming and identifying it; the call of the Other is not yet or only an interpellation and symbolic mandate.