This seminar explored interdisciplinary approaches to listening by bringing together researchers from backgrounds in Childhood studies, Law, Sociology, Social Work, Critical Theory and Literary Studies, Philosophy, Music and Psychology.
The speakers share an interest in researching experiences and circumstances of listening and the respective ‘cultures of listening’ these create. Their work variously draws on process theoretical understandings of experience as it emerges in diverse disciplinary practices: legal and social work practice, practices of remembering and reconciliation, children’s understandings of- and practices directed at the public/social, cultural, theoretical and literary practices surrounding children.
The speakers further share an interest in creative and participatory research methods, variously drawing on musical and artistic practices to innovatively inform data collection and analysis.
Please click on the presentation titles within the programme to hear audio recordings of the contributions.
Please click on presenters’ names (in the programme) for links to biographical information and publications related to the presentations (including written drafts of papers presented).
Sara Ramshaw: Attentive listening in improvisation practices and family law proceedings
This paper builds on research stemming from the AHRC-funded project, entitled “Into the Key of Law: Transposing Musical Improvisation. The Case of Child Protection in Northern Ireland.” One key finding arising from the project is the importance of listening – really listening – to the voices of others, looking specifically at the context of Northern Irish (NI) child protection law. Responding to Pauline Oliveros’s keynote address, “Safe to Play,” at our Just Improvisation Symposium, held at the Sonic Arts Research Centre (SARC) at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) on 29-30 May 2015, Her Honour Judge Patricia Smyth, a NI District Court family law judge, said this about the importance of listening:
[I]f people genuinely feel they have been listened to, that the judge has understood their point, that the judge has given it proper consideration, even if they lose, they can deal with it … because they have been listened to. … And, it is a key task for any judge to not just listen, but to convey the fact to the person that they have been listened to, and, in my own experience in the family court, I think it is an absolute priority that the vulnerable parents are made to feel that they matter, that they are treated with dignity and respect, and I consciously speak directly to parents, for example. I do it deliberately and consciously so that they understand, and very often some of the vulnerable people who find their way into court, they’ve never been listened to by anyone, they’ve been treated like a piece of dirt by authorities everywhere all their lives, and, as a judge, I make it a priority that in my court they will not feel like that.
This paper will thus explore what does it mean to listen deeply and attentively in family law proceedings – especially applications for care orders/custody/adoption – and how can this practice be conveyed to litigants in the courtroom? Moreover, what can judicial listening practices learn from arts-based improvisatory ones?
The Ethics of Improvisation, or the “Good” Improviser
Drawing on the work of Emmanuel Levinas, the late French philosopher Jacques Derrida equates ethics with hospitality and otherness, with the notion or act of being hospitable to the other, to the stranger or foreigner. For Derrida, hospitality (and ethics) can only be understood in a double sense. On the one hand, absolute hospitality (what Derrida also terms “The law,” or “the Law”) requires unqualified generosity and open doors/borders to all visitors. This unconditional welcoming of the unpredictable other involves a certain level of risk for there is always a chance that the stranger/foreigner/trespasser/other will destroy everything and even murder the hospitable host. Ethics as absolute hospitality is thus only possible when certitude is abandoned, when risks are taken. This absolute hospitality, however, is constrained by conditional “laws,” such as those in place to protect an all-welcoming host from unsavoury guests who wish to steal from or even kill her. Ethics as hospitality thereby entails an openness to the unexpected (“The law”), but also constraints on this unpredictability (“laws”, the legal system).
Improvisation shares with ethics (as hospitality) an impossible openness to the unpredictable and uncertain other (the Law). To be recognised as improvisation, it must obey certain pre-existent structures or “laws.” “You gotta improvise on somethin’,” says Charles Mingus. That said, improvisation simultaneously involves a pushing beyond the known and predictable, without guarantee or certainty. As such, it chances failure.
The ethical improviser must thus embrace failure and error as a source of learning and the most accomplished improvisers turn unexpected problems into (musical) opportunities.
Improvisation and Ethical Listening
The unconditional hospitable attitude described above, as that which creates a space for ethics to happen, can only be achieved, according to Cobussen and Nielsen, through “an open listening attitude, an openness towards other voices and the voices of others.” Drawing on Derrida’s distinction above as between the Law and the laws of hospitality, attentive listening involves a constant negotiation between recognition of the pre-existent and discovery of the unknown. Listening with respect, openness and responsiveness necessarily enables the listener to meet otherness as otherness, without the need to reduce it to “the order of the same.” It involves an ethical commitment and responsibility to, and interaction with, all that surrounds us: persons, the environment and the sounds of daily life. Attentive or deep listening demands attunement not only to the singularity of the situation, but also to the context and community within which music is made. From such listening springs compassion and understanding. Improvisational music is very much in tune with attentive listening. As noted above, it both relies on certain laws of music to be recognised as improvisation. Yet, at the same time, it must transgress these laws in a gesture towards the unknown other, to voices and sounds typically silenced in music and society. Attentive listening in improvised music thus does not only sound surprise in relation to auditory sounds. It forces us to think otherwise in terms of our social relationships and “customary frameworks of assumption.”
This paper will bring together Derrida, Judge Smyth and improvising musicians such as Mingus and Ornette Coleman to try and understand cultures of listening in the family law setting.
Child protection in the UK has been in crisis for decades. Recent high profile cases of failure have sparked intense criticism of social workers’ and police officers’ apparent failure to listen to children/families, and to communicate with colleagues.
This paper draws on a research project (‘Cultures of Listening in Child Protection’), based on the idea that child protection agencies have different practices and values that influence how their workers listen. Listening means not just how they hear, but also how they understand-, record and share information when working with families/children, colleagues/other agencies. While such ‘cultures’ are framed by policy, they are also shaped continually by workers’ experience of practicing in the current context of perpetual crisis and reform, severe austerity measures, and polarized public debate. The research participants (social workers/police) self-record audio diaries, reporting on their day-to-day experience of listening to children/families/colleagues. Excerpts from these diaries are turned into audio-collages, which are then listened to and discussed by participants in listening workshops.
The methodology (researching-practice-as-process) draws on process theory and the analysis develops in relation to feminist concepts of care. Extending this theoretical lineage, the paper will show how, by exploring musical concepts of improvisation and attuned listening (Ramshaw), and the artistic practice of dark listening (Greenlaw, 2011) alongside child protection practices, processes of ‘listening’ can be understood as creative acts of relational agency. They comprise emergent dynamics of resistance and transformation that can be used to challenge dominant discourses, and institutional practices, around credibility, truth and evidence.
Jessica Medhurst: Exploring modes of listening in children’s picture books
This work-in-progress paper will explore how ideas of ‘listening’ and ‘hearing’ are constructed in three children’s picture books: Not Now, Bernard (McKee, 1980) Listen, Listen (Gershator and Jay, 2007), and El Deafo (Bell, 2014). It closely reads the implications of these ideas for these texts that, variously, tell the story of a small boy who is eaten by a monster, instruct the reader on the sounds of nature, and explore the life of a hearing impaired anthropomorphic rabbit. The paper will think through how illustration produces (not) hearing and listening and will consider the texts’ claims to a universal experience of hearing, deviation from which is explored in El Deafo as requiring the supplementation of aids in order to join this norm. It does so in order to signpost some of the concerns that may arise in thinking about what constitutes listening in the wider Cultures of Listening context and the ways in which a study of children’ literature might support and challenge this.
Kyoko Murakami: Relational practice of listening as dialogue
This opportunity to look at cultures of listening allowed me critically to revisit my work on reconciliation discourses. In the more orthodox approach to studying memory as a pure recall, the analyst tends to assume the role of listening, especially the researcher’s role in the conversation, as given, as if it was a neutral recipient of information given and therefore, deemed less important. Much discourse research on collective remembering and commemoration has focused on how accounts of events and people were remembered by interlocutors during talk in interaction. Such work examines the discursive production of accounts, or the practices of accountability used in relation to what is remembered. Arguably memory of the problematic past is constructed in social interactions and contentious stakes are managed. Thus, ‘good’ listening practice of the researcher has a bearing on the quality of the data. The analyst gets into the business of addressing how interlocutors engage in sensitive conversations, when contentious claims about past events are put forward, negotiated, contested and reformulated. Only until recently, I focused on this very discursive production. I am now thinking differently about listening, especially listening from the point of view of the researcher and the teacher, which are my professional roles. How do I talk and listen as a teacher or a researcher in conversations about a problem, albeit with a student in distress or anxiety, or a WWII veteran with bitter past relations with the Japanese? In these instances, I would like to consider listening as dialogue. In doing so, I would like to argue that listening is a relational practice for achieving empathy between the interlocutors; it is not merely cognitive adaptation or alignment, more than agreeing (or disagreeing) with the account. In this presentation, I wish to share my ‘preliminary’ work-in-progress approach to listening as dialogue. After outlining concepts of dialogue drawing from the work of Martin Buber, David Bohm and/or Mikhail Bakhtin. I would like to explore two issues: (1) how the act of listening is configured as emergent empathy, (2) how the act of listening is linked to the phenomenological issues of attunement, taking care, and the interlocutors’ being-in-the world (Heidegger) and illustrate them in a few examples taken from my work of reconciliation talk (Murakami, 2012) or the ritual practice of tea ceremony (Murakami, under review). This presentation is aimed at extending and re-specifying ‘cultures of listening’. I wish to address implications for this perspective on listening to help improve classroom interactions and tutorials and other help related practices.
Sevasti-Melissa Nolas: Exploring the idioms of a childhood publics
The appeal to listen to children and young people’s views and experiences is not a new one. It has been institutionalised to varying degrees internationally through instruments such as the UNCRC and national and local policy-making. At the same time research with children has also burgeoned through the emergence of interdisciplinary fields of inquiry such as childhood and youth studies. There is no shortage of approaches and methodologies for ‘listening’ to children and young people’s views and experiences of issues that affect them. But what do we make of the voices we hear, that can often sound like ‘the babble of voices to the new arrival in a far-flung airport’ (Kushner, 2000)? In this presentation, reflecting on fieldwork from a comparative ethnography on childhood and public life, I build on the idea of a childhood publics (Nolas, 2015) to think about the possible resources a listener might need to understand and appreciate the idioms of childhood.
Karin Lesnik-Oberstein: Voice, Agency and the child
It is in relation to ideas of children being able to be ‘seen’ or ‘heard’ that I wish to raise here two ongoing central issues for approaches to childhood in all fields: ‘voice’ and ‘agency’. Both these terms relate centrally to the concerns of this volume: on the one hand to demonstrate how ‘agency’ and ‘voice’ occur and are used across a range of fields’ engagements with childhood, and, on the other hand, to explore further how both these terms have a range of consequences and continue to raise a number of difficulties. Although I am focusing here specifically on ‘voice’ and ‘agency’ because of their prominent currency and purchase across a wide range of disciplines (in relation to childhood, but not just childhood), it is important also to note that what it means to ‘see’ the child raises theoretically parallel questions. Two issues can be seen to be at stake in this argument: first, the idea that to be an agent or a participant, and to have a voice, are seen as a privilege and prerogative, or as part of children’s ‘resources, creativity and inventiveness’. I here explore, however, the question of what ‘agency’ and ‘voice’ are. Are they, necessarily, the liberation from adult exploitation and oppression that many critics claim? And, moreover, what are precisely the ‘voice’ and ‘agency’ of childhood? What allows them to be seen as such? Using this perspective allows us to ask, for instance, when a child is seen to speak, how and why is it seen to be speaking its own voice? This issue is fundamental to difficulties surrounding both the study and the care of the child in any context, including in legal, educational or social welfare situations, where the question is often asked whether the child is not speaking the words it has been told to speak, for instance.