What does it mean to really listen in a society obsessed with spectacle? What’s hidden when powerful people claim to “hear” or “give voice” to others? And what’s at stake if we think that using fancy recording devices helps us to neatly capture “truth”?
Les Back – author of “The Art of Listening” – tells Alexis and Rosie why listening to society is crucial, but cautions that there’s nothing inherently superior about the hearing sense. Rather, we must “re-tune our ears to society” and listen responsibly, with care, and in doubt.
Plus: why should we think critically before accepting invitations to “trust our senses”? And why do so many sociologists also happen to be musicians?
Guest: Les Back
Hosts: Rosie Hancock, Alexis Hieu Truong
Executive Producer: Alice Bloch
Sound Engineer: David Crackles
Music: Joe Gardner
Artwork: Erin Aniker
Find more about Uncommon Sense at The Sociological Review.
Les, Rosie, Alexis and our producer Alice recommended
From The Sociological Review
By Les Back
Further reading and viewing
Rosie Hancock 0:05
Hi, Happy New Year, and welcome to Uncommon Sense, from The Sociological Review. Now, as we've grown this podcast over the past year or so, I've got used to introducing it as the show where we see the world afresh through the eyes of sociologists. But, kind of in the spirit of New Year's resolutions, I think I need to correct that for this episode. Because today, we're actually going to be hearing the world afresh, with the sociologist Les Back. We'll be taking some common sense ideas around noise, sound, silence and listening, and flipping them around a bit to think differently about our society. Its inequalities, but its possibilities too.
Alexis Hieu Truong 0:45
Rosie, I'm so excited to speak to Les. His book "The Art of Listening" is a real staple for so many budding sociologists. But before we pull him in, I wondered, what do you think about listening to the world? I mean, is it something you've considered perhaps in your own work on religion or activism, maybe?
Rosie Hancock 1:03
Oh, yeah. I mean, religious sound is super diverse, but also very central to many, many forms of religious and spiritual practice. I study Islam, and you've got probably, most obviously, the call to prayer, which is ubiquitous and beautiful, I think, in Muslim majority countries – and it's heard five times daily – and I found it really a kind of audio and spiritual punctuation to the day. And, of course, the Quran is recited in a special way called Tajweed, which is – it almost sounds like it's being sung. But also, one of the things about a lot of places of worship I've been into is actually silence – or at least this very, very apparent feeling of hush – that's a really strong norm.
Alexis Hieu Truong 1:44
Interesting. For myself, like, I'm not sure if I've shared this before, but I actually played in punk and metal bands from high school to my PhD when I moved to Tokyo for the fieldwork. And recently, I've tried to integrate that to the research and the teaching, by making music for quant methods courses.
Rosie Hancock 2:05
Alexis Hieu Truong 2:06
Like, it's stuff that students feel are very daunting. But yeah, it's just making tunes out of stats. I'm gonna try that.
Rosie Hancock 2:14
I love that, Alexis. It sounds like a very cool thing. I play protest songs at the beginning of some of my social justice classes, but I definitely don't actually write the music myself. So you're, like, next level there. I mean, there's really like so much that can be said about hearing and listening to each other, isn't there? I mean, I feel – particularly since Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and so on – there's been this rash of conversation about how we need to have dialogue, to listen, to talk across divides, and so on. But we should also think about how we're listening – to what end, with what prejudices, using what devices, and indeed which online platforms, owned by which influential entrepreneurs. And also about who has the power to be heard? And who has the power to choose not to listen?
Alexis Hieu Truong 3:05
Well, it's great to have Les here to help us through it all. Hi Les, welcome to Uncommon Sense.
Les Back 3:13
Oh, it's great to be invited. Really looking forward to our conversation. Besides, it's a joy to be here.
Rosie Hancock 3:18
Well, as we admitted in an intro there, it's so easy to just lazily refer and think with the visual sense only. To say things like, "let's look at this" or "I see what you mean", or even "I couldn't believe my eyes" – as if our eyes are some ultimate arbiter of truth. For a long time now, you've focused on a different sense in much of your work, looking at listening? How does doing that expand the sociological imagination or its potential?
Les Back 3:47
Well, you know, I've really been interested in cultures of sound; not just of music, but of the auditory aspects of life. But I would also broaden it. I mean, in a way, the risk of thinking with our eyes is that we end up focusing – to use a "seeing" word – on the big problems, to a spectacle. You know, I think that, in a way, sociology can be prone to focusing on the big problems – the spectacular, the big news, the drama of life. Whereas, I think, thinking with sound and thinking through sound, invites us to pay close attention to those things that are also going on that might be in the background – that might not be the big spectacles of life, and the spectacular problems. But also the mundane, the everyday, the things that are going on in the background, and to pay attention to that and the significance and unfolding of life. I mean, in a way, what I have always felt was an important invitation is to try and think within what Joachim Berendt calls "a democracy of the senses". Because I think, ultimately, what sociology is about, is leading an attentive life.
Alexis Hieu Truong 5:00
Thinking about it, these kinds of words around sound and music, and like, these kinds of analogies, they've really gone into the mainstream. So, words like "harmonious" and "dissonant" are used to – and maybe even reserved for – describing how society is functioning or malfunctioning. What do you say to that? I mean, is the use of the words actually an exception to this spectacle obsessed society, you just described? Or are they somehow like part of it?
Les Back 5:28
Well, I don't think there's any ... there aren't any words that are outside these processes of ethics of judgement, and the consequences of the words that we use to try and make sense. So, in a way, Alexis, I think the important thing is to realise that all words are implicated in judgments and decisions that we make to understand the world. And that process involves methods – literally, how we do it – but also, it involves making moral and political judgments about it. So, I don't think there's anything about listening – or sound – that is inherently superior to looking. The idea of listening can be just as easily debased by the projects of power, as looking. Famously, Michel Foucault talked about the Panopticon – the prison where the prisoner would constantly be being seen. It's sometimes forgotten or overlooked, but the Panopticon – Jeremy Bentham's prison, model prison – was also a listening device. So there isn't anything inherent about listening that's ethically or morally superior. I think what we need to develop are a kind of ethical and political understanding of the consequences of how we attend to the world; and try and make sense of it.
Rosie Hancock 6:43
Les, you yourself are a musician – a guitarist, I believe – and you've been writing about how many sociologists are or have been musicians: Emma Jackson, Howard Becker, now we know Alexis Hieu Truong, as well. Why do you think that is? A critic would say it's just because maybe sociologists have too much time on their hands? But as someone who plays the piano quite badly, to be honest, with no time to practice, that's probably not the right ...
Les Back 7:09
Yeah, too much time on their hands ... I don't know how – I mean, I think actually, we need to spend less time in the sort of professionalised forms of work that academic life enforces, you know, absolutely. If you go through the list of sociological writers – many of whom were keen musicians, or had an engagement with what Christopher Smallwood called "musicking" – so, going right back to the beginnings of Sociology ... W. E. B. Du Bois, one of my great heroes, writes this incredible book called "The Soul of Black Folk", and at the beginning of every chapter, there's a few bars of a spiritual – in a way the music sets the key of this account, extraordinary account, of the condition of African Americans. Du Bois himself was a good singer, he could read music, you know, there's a reason why he's attentiveness to the sonic and music as organised sound leads him to say, well, actually, when it comes to the experience of the emerging civil rights movement in the African American condition at the beginning of the 20th century – which he says is "the century of the colour bar" – it is the songs of those communities that are the most articulate messages – what Du Bois says – "of the slave to the world". Then, you know, Du Bois was a friend and contemporary of Max Weber. Max Weber writes the first really serious sociology of music. Max Weber could play the piano well, he understood musical notation. Much of his ideas about rationalisation and bureaucratization of life are rooted in the clues he takes from music. So it goes from the very beginning to our moment now – Alexis being the most contemporary maybe example of that. You know, people like Paul Gilroy, the great theorist of "The Black Atlantic", is an incredibly accomplished guitarist. I was just playing guitar with him this weekend, in fact. Stuart Hall loved to play the piano. It feels to me that there maybe are some clues. And we've just finished a paper that's not been published yet, in English, that's about the hidden musical lives of sociologists – it's a study actually, it's an interview study – and what's the relationship between an attentiveness to music as organised sound, and an attentiveness to society and societal shifts and voices.
Rosie Hancock 9:35
I mean, thinking about, you know, music getting recorded, but then also speech, which is something sociologists are doing professionally, you've written about the use by sociologists of what was once the tape recorder – I guess now the voice recording app or whatever – and your piece on that really digs into the assumption that by recording something, you capture something more authentic and true; that by pressing "record", you might say, listen better? Can you tell me more about that? What your argument in that piece is?
Les Back 10:07
Yeah, you know, it was quite a radical manoeuvre. For 50 years, I think, the tape recorder or how devices that we used to record the human voice, kind of held our imaginations hostage. In a way, the innovation of the tape recorder in the mid 20th century really transformed what research was – and is – as a practice. Any researcher worth their salt, first thing they would do is buy a tape recorder. But the thing about the tape recorder, on the one hand is this radical potential to capture the grain of the voice, you know, the capacity to actually capture the idioms of people's speech as they explain their lives and their reflections on it was a radical thing, you know. But, in a way, I think the tape recorder also made us start to pay less attention to those things that couldn't be recorded. If it was on tape, then it was okay. Somehow it was "real", you know. And if it wasn't on tape, then it never happened. And, you know, I think that that's ... it's true to say that, I think, in a way, our reliance on those devices meant perhaps we weren't paying attention to the things that we could describe through notation or written reconstructions, you know. And because so much – as Zygmunt Bauman once said, you know – so much of the stuff of life, the importance of life, the passion and the pain of life, is unspoken. So, I think, you know, Ned Polsky makes that point in a brilliant book called "Hustlers, Beats, and Others" – he hated the tape recorder, he refused to use it, because he felt it made him pay less attention to the world.
Rosie Hancock 11:44
Yeah. So, I guess, the opposite of using a recording device would be something like, I mean, a buzzword is "active listening", right? And a quick online search suggests you can learn to listen actively. Is that part of what you mean by "the art of listening" in your book of that name? Or are you getting it something a bit more subtle in thinking of listening as like an art or a method?
Les Back 12:06
You know, I remember when I was working on that book; I mean, it was a personal sort of crossroads, for me. It coincided with the death of my father. I remember sitting by his bedside, reading the proof copy of a book that I wrote with Vron Ware called "Out of Whiteness". And it was a real moment of sitting there listening to the sound of his ... his diminishing breaths and rattling chest. It posed a question to me – the sound of that. So, what is it you're doing? What's it really about? Who's it for? What you're trying to do with this work? And I hadn't realised at that time, it was the beginning of a sort of turning point for me, that resulted in "The Art of Listening". The beginning of that project, really, or that book itself is to say, well, actually, perhaps we live in a world which speaks so freely and certainly, and that, you know, suffers not from doubt, but from certainty. Perhaps we need to cultivate a more careful, doubtful, open orientation to taking the world in. And that's why I wanted to argue that sociology should be a listener's art. And that process of listening isn't self-evident. And Primo Levi commented on this, you know – there's not only an art of speaking, theres an art of listening. And that that is about a cultivation of a sensibility. It's a sensibility that is both a practical taking in of the world, but it is also an ethical and political practice. And, you know, it's been lovely to watch other people really pick up those strands and push them forward. Leah Bassel, for example, talks about "the politics of listening". I think listening is inherently political. It isn't necessarily a good thing. You know, politicians like to threaten us with listening all the time. And, you know, think about those moments, those silences – the silence of the therapist who hears you say some very, very revealing thing and just pauses – it can be about authority and control the process of listening too. And in a way, that's partly why it felt, to me, that our encounter with the world – the way in which we record and attend to the voices of others in their full texture, and therefore, complexity – isn't simply about the sort of the facsimile of transcription. It's an ethical and political practice, as well as a disposition.
Alexis Hieu Truong 14:31
And you wrote "The Art of Listening" a good few years before the rise of the events and people we mentioned earlier – Brexit, Trump, Bolsonaro, Orban – and more recently, far-right parties like in Italy and Sweden. Since those years, there has been a lot more said about the importance of listening to each other, across the fights and so on. Do you think that there's been any progress made there or is that discourse about dialogue and listening actually rather superficial or lacking?
Les Back 15:03
Well, I think it can be utterly superficial, you know. It can be a way of placating people – "I'm listening, I hear you, I'm listening" – well, that isn't really engagement. It can be utterly politically superficial to say those things. And, in a way, it feels – I don't want to be so smug about this, but it feels like some of those issues have become even more intensely relevant in the years that have followed – you know, not quite 20 years, but, you know, a decade or more ... Haven't we just seen the sort of silos of certainty in the political cultures to unfold at an extraordinary rate and level? I think that sense of engaging in dialogue that isn't about agreement necessarily – it can be about disagreement – but that it means taking the seriousness, taking the arguments of one's opponents or even the enemy seriously, and interrogating them seriously and weighing them seriously, as well as our own arguments, our own ideas. It's why I think sociology should be about living in doubt in the service of understanding. That's what I feel I'm trying to do when I've got, you know, either my box of tapes – listening back to them, as I've been doing recently – or my digital voice recorded notes. It's about that challenge.
Rosie Hancock 16:26
Les, I want to go back to an earlier point we touched on, which is essentially that of the fetishization of the voice, the delusion that there are simple narratives out there just waiting to be captured. I'm wondering – maybe controversially – about whether we also see that in the endless hunger for podcasts, in the storytelling genre for true crime, for example. I mean, in those sorts of shows we hear the dial tone, the gruff voice on the end of the line, but just because we hear a phone call it doesn't mean it's totally "authentic" – whatever that means. And it certainly doesn't mean that it's not been produced, or at least shaped by the person on the other end of the line – just as an interview is shaped. Indeed, as this interview – our interview with you – is being shaped by what people and ideas are present in the space, what assumptions and expectations and norms are brought to the table. There's a lot that I've sort of brought there. But, do you have any thoughts on this idea?
Les Back 17:25
You know, I think that the important point to say is that no telling or representation of society is innocent. You know, I think people's voices and the people speaking about their lives – in their own terms, in the ordinary circumstances of life – is a really important thing to pay attention to and to value. That doesn't mean to say that there's a straightforward correspondence between what people say and a "truth" that's beyond what people say. That's the sort of lesson of the phenomenological and the ethnological/ethnomethodological turn in Sociology. I think that's an important point to keep constantly to mind. You know, I love podcasts. And that's why I'm here talking to you. I love them partly because of the way in which they can be composed – the idioms of people speaking in their own accents, as well as the soundscapes of all kinds of contexts and so on. All of that, I think – and music in that, fold in there, too – I think is a wonderful opportunity. None of it is innocent. It's all invested with decision, artifice, and shaping. I think that, in a way, the task for us is to make ethical and political judgments about those things in life that we want to tune our ears to – the things that we want to make louder, that maybe are muted or not heard or made sense of. Those are all choices that are about judgement. And I think, all understandings of the world involve judgement and interpretation. So, I think, it's a vigilant kind of openness to weighing those accounts. In a sense, what a sociology degree could offer students now is a capacity to weigh and judge the circulation of, not only information, but of experience and the staging of that; whether it be in a true crime podcast, or on the BBC News.
Alexis Hieu Truong 19:30
Les, much of your work on listening is wrapped up in attending to racism and inequality. And you do that in a piece that you wrote with Emma Jackson and Agata Lisiak, a couple of years back, exploring the fear of foreign sounds and languages in two cities – actually London and Berlin. Could you tell us why those two cities specifically? They're both typically seen as pretty cosmopolitan, ostensibly welcoming.
Les Back 19:57
It was largely through an accident, to be honest with you. All of us, in fact – Agata, Emma and I – had spent time in both of those cities and were fascinated by those cities. But, beyond the cities themselves, I think all of us were curious about, on the one hand, the way in which the forces of hate, really, were being articulate. The sociology of racism has relied heavily on understanding "race" and racism as a discourse or an ideology – as pattern forms of speech. So, in a way, the analysis of racism has been to focus on the shape of its grammar and its rhetoric – and to focus on the explicit expression of racial power. And I think what Emma, Agata and I started to realise, or to be thinking about, is that actually the effective power of racism isn't necessarily only in explicit language. In a way, that the power of racism and its effects had moved into the unspoken. It might use language as a sign of difference, but it didn't necessarily articulate itself explicitly. And so, we started to think about, well, if that's the case, if really, in a way, even the most ardent racists realise they can't say openly racist things in crude ways anymore, how does the expression and the impact of racial power work and unfold? So that's why we started to think, well, okay, maybe there's something in the aversion to particular sounds, or the promotion of particular sounds? And in the sonic landscape, that is the medium through which racism is operating.
Rosie Hancock 21:55
Speaking of language, and going beyond it, we normally avoid jargon – here at Uncommon Sense – but on this episode we're going to make an exception, because one of the terms you use to talk about all of this is just a phenomenal word: xenoglossophobia. Can you explain that though, with an example for us?
Les Back 22:17
You know, I don't like jargon either. I mean, the thing about sociologists is that we are language lovers. We love language so much we try to invent our own language. I think that's an impulse that we should be ... we should try and keep in check. But in this case, and it's really Agata Lisiak who pushed us forward here – which was really helpful and I embrace the idea – is trying to find a way to specify a particular practice or particular aspect of the way in which racism works. So, it's trying to be precise. So, xenoglossophobia is trying to name the way in which aversion and hate can be focused, not on the linguistic and rhetorical structure of language – you know, what people actually convey in communication in a language – but the sound of language itself, the sound of a language that is being constructed as "out of place" or "unwanted". It's a stock retort of racist reactions to hearing a foreign language quotes to say "speak English" in an English-speaking context, you know, and the fact that people are speaking another language is somewhat somehow "suspicious".
Rosie Hancock 23:38
I think there's quite a famous example of the far-right politician Nigel Farage getting hot under the collar about being on a train carriage and hearing no one speaking the same language.
Les Back 23:50
It's interesting you mentioned that and I'm like, chomping at the bit to tell this, because that train journey is one that I've taken thousands of times. So, Nigel Farage is going from Central London through the multicultural and diverse neighbourhoods of South London out into the hinterlands of London, beyond its kind of official metropolitan boundaries. And, you know, as you move along that train line, the train carriage – this happens in lots of cities – the train carriage gets Whiter and Whiter. And the languages that are spoken on that train carriage get fewer and fewer. And, in a way, his own disquiet is so ironic because, you know, Nigel Farage is married to a German woman. But at the same time, the uncertainty, the disquiet ... I don't know, I can't quite say ... he mentioned it – "I just feel uncomfortable" – that discomfort is an example of what we would call xenoglossophobia. It's the sound of the languages of difference that become focused upon.
Alexis Hieu Truong 24:56
So a related word: xenophonophobia – that's the fear of foreign sounds essentially, or I guess sounds that the listener finds foreign, right? And that's interesting, because it not only goes beyond the visual, it also goes beyond the verbal, beyond language.
Les Back 25:13
Yeah. Because, you know, again, sociologists are language lovers, we're interested in language. But you know, so much of life operates outside of language. And so, there are sounds like, you know – we mentioned, you mentioned it, before – the call to prayer, for example, the sounds of religious worship, the textures of ... Yasmin Gunaratnam has written brilliant book called "Death and The Migrant", and she talks about the sounds of grief and the patterns of grieving, you know, in the sort of White Europe and White English context. The sense of silence – hushed grief – wasn't shared by – in the hospice which she was studying – by people from other parts of the world where grief was much more expressed and articulated beyond hushed tones. So, in a way, what we were trying to get to with this other idea – xenophonophobia – is the way in which those sounds can be both the triggers and the focus of hateful dispositions.
Rosie Hancock 26:18
I feel like we're getting at a key thing here, which is that how one defines something that they hear is noise, or music or sound will depend on context, and will depend on conditioning. So like, the piano at King's Cross Station in London, versus a sound system in the street. They're both music in public spaces, but they'd be read differently. Likewise, let's say the shouts of a political protest, if you agree with it, and those of football fans that maybe you don't particularly like. And people also seem to get especially annoyed about what they might lazily label as "religious noise". As a sociologist of religion, I kind of find that curious. Like, for example, certain people moving to an area with churches and then getting mad about the church bells ringing early on a Sunday morning, or conversely, finding church bells quaint but then being maddened by the sound of Christian preachers outside a train station.
Les Back 27:16
Sure, because, you know, so it's all about situatedness and context, and how those sounds are play and reverberate. You know, remember, this is all about reverberation and movement – how they unfold in places and contexts where those sounds are given and invested with meaning and significance. Whether it is significance that creates a kind of homely sense of place, or whether those sounds are thought to be "out of place", or to be "disruptions", you know.
Alexis Hieu Truong 27:49
Les, we've been talking about fears and phobias of sounds and languages regarded as foreign by the listener, but I'm also wondering what your thought is around another kind of response to certain sounds. And maybe their appropriation? I guess you might maybe call it xenophonophilia? Like, I'm not sure if that's a thing. But yeah, I'm thinking, say of like the use of Black spiritual music in electronic dance music and festivals, for example.
Les Back 28:19
Yeah. Well, you know, I think the whole debate about cultural appropriation is perhaps seated to the side of our discussion today, but it's an interesting one. And, you know, my thought about that – and I teach these kinds of issues to undergraduates – and it's interesting too ... I mean, all culture is appropriated. All culture is appropriated, because all culture is learned. So, in a sense, the idea of cultural appropriation really focuses around, well, what is legitimate or illegitimate about the way we learn to appreciate culture and aesthetic things in life? And so, you know, I would say – to go back to your example of spirituals in techno – it's like, well, okay, who's benefiting from those, from that learning or use or reuse? Who's being honoured and being paid, ultimately, and rewarded in that process? Because, you know, the truth is that the soundproofing around culture never holds, you know – so, sound moves. That's partly what's interesting about it. Now, in that movement, what happens next and how is it both ... It seems to me to be about, you know, who benefits and who does not. I think, I would go back to Du Bois, you know, that incredible formulation that the spirituals are the articulate message to the world – they're a gift to the world. "You can't steal a gift" – as the jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie once said – but you can certainly misuse a gift, or you can certainly exploit a gift.
Rosie Hancock 29:54
Thanks Les. Well, in a moment, we're going to move to take on a trope that's used in everything from counter-terrorism work to relationship advice columns, which is the idea that we should simply trust our senses and act on them. But first, a quick word from Alice, our producer.
Alice Bloch 30:18
Hi, and thanks for listening to Uncommon Sense, from The Sociological Review, where we're wrapping up Series #1 with Les Back. If you're new to us, and you'd like to hear more in the coming year – and let's face it, 2023 is going to need all the critical thinking we can get – then sit tight for Series #2, launching really soon, or you can dig into our archive right now. There, you'll find conversations about everything from emojis to enchantment, self-care to self-build, borders to bodies, with thinkers like Bev Skeggs, Nandita Sharma, and Michaela Benson. And with every single episode, you'll also find reading lists full of surprising recommendations – older, new, academic, and otherwise – to share with friends, family, with the students in your life. You can find all of that via the podcast page at thesociologicalreview.org, or in the app you're using to hear this now. Speaking of which, if you've not already done so, please do take a moment – and it really does literally take a moment – to follow us in the app where you find your podcasts. It helps us to keep bringing Uncommon Sense to you. Thanks for listening, and we'll see you very soon.
Rosie Hancock 31:33
This is a part of the show where we like to look at a trope that's really taken hold, but that we really stopped to question. So, something that we think is common sense, but that might not in fact be so natural or straightforward. Recently, we have looked at some great stuff – so, the idea that urban life is mean and lonely, in our show on Cities, or at the meaning of decolonisation, in our episode on the notion of being Native with Nandita Sharma.
Alexis Hieu Truong 31:59
But today, Les, we wanted to talk to you about the idea that we should "trust our senses" – something you explore in another piece of yours. Les, I think we mentioned counter-terrorism earlier. How are we encouraged to trust our senses? So, what examples are there from the UK?
Les Back 32:15
Yeah. Well, you know, when I was finishing "The Art of Listening" I was travelling around London, and virtually in every tube car there was a poster that said "trust your senses – if you see here anything suspicious, report it". And that just really struck me. I thought, "trust your senses"? Hmm. Should we trust our senses? Well, our senses aren't somehow innate or natural gifts to us – our senses are trained. Our senses are educated to see some differences and to see others as not being significant; to perceive some people as been threatening – depending on who you are – and others to be unthreatening presences. So, you know, the whole history of racism in modernity is about the education of the senses; and this a point I take from Paul Gilroy's writing, which seems such a profoundly true thing. You know, it's about the education of senses in a way we should ... I feel ... And it comes from Frantz Fanon – you know, the great anti-colonial writer too. He says that our sense of humanity itself is amputated from us, and with that our capacity to see and understand and take the world in through the power of racism itself and colonisation. And part of the task is not to trust our senses, but to interrogate them, and to repair them – depending on who you are and how you're positioned within that history.
Rosie Hancock 33:45
So, the problem is that our senses and their interpretation, and how we're socialised into that, can't ever be separated. But also, just on the practical level – there's also the simple fact that not everyone can actually hear equally, or at all. Yeah? Nor does everyone understand or speak the dominant language of the country that they live in. So, we kind of risk exclusion if we just say "hey, trust your senses".
Les Back 34:11
Yeah, there's lots of things we risk, actually. We risk exclusion, that's right – and the presumption that we all hear the same. I mean, I think that's one of the things which is really important in the way in which the sort of critical ideas around disability and disability studies are trying to sort of challenge the normative idea of the hearing subject – if you like – and the seeing one, for that matter, you know. I mean, Evelyn Glennie – the great drummer – has a brilliant story about this. And she says, you know, she would take young children who are seen to be deaf – seen to be deaf, I've said that consciously. They're defined as being deaf. She would take them to concerts, and the people would say "well, why are you bringing these deaf kids to music concerts?" It's a particular presumption of what deafness is, which is a complete stony silence, you know, nothingness. When, actually, the experience of it – of hearing impairment – is as a huge range. And the feel of vibration could have an incredible diversity, if you like. It revealed the presumptions of what the lack of hearing is and how it is experienced.
Rosie Hancock 35:18
Yeah, I mean, thinking about that – these sorts of questions around inclusion – we've spoken about who's listening and who can listen and how, but feels like we're now sort of almost flipping around to talk about who is being heard, and how are they hearing? And what power relationships are there? Yeah? I think that's something that black feminists like Hazel Carby in "White woman listen!" or bell hooks in her collection "Talking back" have been talking about for a very long time. And, in fact, I guess, the very fact that they've had to talk about it for such a long time points to a big failure of listening – including by many academics, yeah?
Les Back 35:57
Yeah, exactly. I mean, you know, I think that's so true. In a way, a more decolonised curriculum, or a curriculum that is truly open, is a better curriculum, in my view. And so, drawing in those precedents and issues ... and because they're really about, you know, not only about who can speak and how to listen, but who is a legitimate voice, and who does the talking. And so, that's where the whole thing about "giving voice to others" is such a slippery and dangerous practice, you know. And I think that, on the one hand, I would say, the reason why we shouldn't "trust our senses" is because our senses can be drunk with power, and they can be drunk with violence too, you know. Think about those cases of people who are shot and killed in the name of "defending society against terrorism" – they're examples of exactly moments when the senses of those people upholding that responsibility are drunk with violence, you know. But, at the same time, I think it's true to say that – and this is Fanon's great point – it's not just the oppressive forces, the dominant powerful voices, whose senses are affected – their sense of the world is affected – it also essentially affects the sense of those who are colonised too. And so, that sense of being open to that process and being reflective ... I mean, Yasmin Gunaratnam – who is somebody I really admire – talks about this thing about going to the podium and feeling a kind of podium fever. That isn't about her own capacity, it's a socially produced thing where, as an intellectual of colour, she goes to the podium and feels undermined by the unspoken forms of authority and the choreography of those places. Other people go to the podium and feel entirely enabled by them. You see what I mean? So, in a way, I think being suspicious, or mistrustful, or at least questioning of our senses is an important thing for everyone, in different ways.
Alexis Hieu Truong 35:59
So, Les, on this important reflection on listening, how can we retune our ear to society and learn to listen again? To listen well? What practical steps can we actually take?
Les Back 38:25
Murray Schafer – the soundscape writer – talks about "cleaning your ears". There are practices you can do to "clean your ears", to sort of start to recalibrate your attentiveness and listen for the things that we don't normally tune our ear to or notice. But, you know, I remember going through a long list of ways to listen better in a first-year undergraduate lecture, and erm, one of the things I would say – I've stopped saying it actually – is "hear your own voice and develop a mild aversion to it". And a young woman came down to the podium, actually, to the front of the lecture theatre and said, "you know, Les, I recognise that thing you said about hearing your own voice, but I've got such an aversion to my own voice that I can barely speak". And it was a product of the experience of a young woman and the gendered nature of that experience – her sense of not feeling the authority, being enabled to speak, being silenced very often. It made me more careful about that sense of those people who find the sound of their voice ... who have aversions to the sound of their own voice, and how that can be connected to configurations of power and privilege.
Rosie Hancock 39:47
That really resonates with the group that I did research with; it had a "step back" and "step forward" rule – that if you were used to the sound of your own voice, you should step back and if you weren't, you could step forward. Les, it's been great to talk today. But before you head off, it's time to each share a tip for something not academic that makes us think differently about our subject – about noise or sound, silence and listening. So, just a really kind of quick recommendation. What do you think we should be listening to, and why?
Les Back 40:20
Ha, well, you know, forgive me, I'm gonna have to choose some music. I'm such a big music lover. I love the songs that are written about city life. When I gave my inaugural lecture, one of the things I did was have like a playlist of people coming in – a bit like you actually, Rosemary – in that I play music at the beginning of lecture kind of furnishes it differently, it feels like to me. One of them was Ewan MacColl's beautiful London ballad "Sweet Thames, Flow Softly". But my choice is not from the past. It's a contemporary songwriter called Hak Baker, who, I think, is an extraordinary voice and interpreter of contemporary London life. He grew up in the Isle of Dogs in East London. He was actually a chorister at Soutwark Cathedral, trained as a choir boy – although he didn't fit in so well in the culture of the choir – you know, ended up with being a grime artist, and then a songwriter. And I think Hak's music is just extraordinary. In its way, it kind of captures and represents the ebb and flow of contemporary London life. I think "Wobbles on the Cobbles" is one of my favourite from him – it's the song that got me through the lockdown, actually. So yeah, I would say listen to Hak Baker.
Rosie Hancock 41:39
Now, I want to bring up “4′33″”, which is a conceptual piece of music by the American composer, John Cage. And it's a piece of music where the musicians sit on a stage for 4 minutes and 33 seconds and don't play their instruments. And what I really love about it – I mean, I've never seen it in person myself, so, you know, I've only ever heard about it as an idea – but what I love about it is that the piece is kind of about silence in terms of the lack of music, but it's also about the ambient noise that the audience would hear during those four and something minutes, which kind of touches on what we were just talking about before; about, you know, retuning our listening skills. Alexis, what about you?
Alexis Hieu Truong 42:18
Actually, I'd like to share something more along the lines of a cultural practice. We have this initiative here that I participate in, called "Walls to Bridges", where we hold university classes inside carceral institutions, with inside and outside students, basically. And our pedagogy is really inspired by indigenous knowledges and practices. And one of the ideas is to listen with an open heart. And so, Les, you were talking about kind of listening with the body, and so on, and I think that sometimes we might rely overly on kind of cognition or, like, listening with an open mind ... But yeah, listening with an open heart – it's kind of a different approach.
Rosie Hancock 42:59
Alexis, that was such a beautiful little reflection there. I feel like opening our ears and our hearts is such a warming message for us to wrap up on. Les, thanks so much for joining us today. It's been a real pleasure chatting to you.
Alexis Hieu Truong 43:14
Thank you very much.
Les Back 43:15
No, it's been great. Thank you.
Alexis Hieu Truong 43:20
And that's it for today. We're taking a short break next month as we warm up for Series #2. But we will be back with you soon. You can catch today's reading list with pieces from The Sociological Review and more by clicking on the podcast page at The Sociological Review website, or browse our show notes in the app you're using to hear this.
Rosie Hancock 43:37
Alexis, what are you going to be thinking about when you leave here today?
Alexis Hieu Truong 43:42
I think what struck me most was kind of how Les made those links between the senses – and in hearing – and power. And it's kind of, like, I think, we tend to think about those things as separate, and perceiving the senses as just being given – right? – something really "objective". But thinking about those things, in line with those relations of power, I think that that's something that I really want to think about. How about yourself?
Rosie Hancock 44:07
I mean, I think I spend so much time thinking about the positive aspects of listening – particularly in the political world – but I thought that his kind of talking about listening as potentially, in some context, coercive or manipulative was just a really fantastic reminder to be critical, and, you know, in an evaluative sense about what we hear. And, I guess, I should also add, I have really enjoyed talking with the guests that we've had on the show over the 10 episodes – it has been just an absolutely joyous romp through sociology, but also very thought-provoking. Lots of interesting reading that's been brought up, lots of really fascinating conversations, and I'm so excited to see what is coming up. So, if you've enjoyed listening to us, tap "follow", give us a rating in whatever app you use to hear this, and please do keep sharing us with everyone – because sociology is for everyone! And, no doubt, we'll need it more than ever as we see what 2023 has in store.
Alexis Hieu Truong 45:13
Our executive producer was Alice Bloch, and our sound engineer was Dave Crackles. See you back here soon.
Rosie Hancock 45:19
Alexis Hieu Truong 45:21