Monday, June 20, 2011

Don Ihde Listening and Voice

Don Ihde’s Listening and Voice

Ihde is clearly an American pragmatist-phenomenologist, a position that he equates with “postphenomenology,” which is a “hybrid phenomenology.” He takes the “overcoming of early modern epistemology and metaphysics” from the pragmatists nad the “rigorous style of analysis through the use of variational theory, the deeper phenomenological understanding of embodiment [. . .] and a dynamic understanding of a lifeworld as a fruitful enrichment of pragmatism” (Ihde 23). What is peculiar about this ‘hybridization’ is that phenomenology, particularly the philosophy of Heidegger, was also concerned with overcoming modern epistemology and metaphysics. It seems that Ihde gets a sort of ‘experiential descriptive’ analysis from phenomenology, but thinks that pragmatism does better at overcoming pragmatism.

Postphenomenology is a recent term of Ihde’s compared to his 1976 Listening and Voice, which tries to apply Husserl and Heidegger’s philosophy to the auditory dimension. According to Ihde, the philosophical tradition is visualist, with little consideration for sound. He moves through Aristotle to Descartes to Locke to show this bias, showing the necessity for a consideration of sound and voice. He then gives a summary of the work of Husserl and Heidegger for those unfamiliar with them. The rest of the book (the meat of the work) is a descriptive project of sounds based on Husserl and Heidegger.

The problem with the book, for me, comes from my reading Jacques Derrida. Derrida’s Speech and Phenomena, a rigorous critique of Husserlian ‘presence’, was published in translation in 1973. Ihde’s book was published in ’76, which means he had probably been writing it for the past several years.  Around the same time, Derrida’s other works were published in translation: Writing and Difference and Of Grammatology. Although Ihde seems to fight against the idea that sound and music can be “pure” he retains a commitment to speaking of voice/sound’s “presence.” Furthermore, Derrida sees the “voice” as presence and logos which has permeated all of philosophy. We can see that Ihde did not take Derrida’s critique into account by the title of two of his chapters: “The Center of Language” and “Inner Speech” (149). Furthermore, Ihde writes of the “dramaturgical voice,” which, it is true, has gotten short shrift in philosophy on a cursory reading of Plato (sophism, rhetoric, poetry), but as Derrida has shown, Plato’s relation to these traditions are much more complicated. Ihde claims that the dramaturgical voice “persuades, transforms, and arouses humankind in its amplified sonorous significance. Yet from the beginning there is the call to listen to the logos, and the logos is first a discourse” (171).

Another aspect that is clear from Ihde’s work is that he assumes the subject and then moves outward, even though he argues for an intersubjectivity that primarily is the result of being-in-language (a position derived from Heidegger). Ihde’s use of the “late Heidegger” (which he says is the more important Heidegger) rarely comes in the form of direct quotations, but Ihde clearly uses Heideggerian terminology: “the Open, gathering, Dasein,” (170). Although Ihde uses the terminology of the late Heidegger, Ihde does not really work through the late Heidegger, so much as apply it. In this sense, Ihde does not really think the Event radically enough, basing his description on the intersubjective “conversation” between two people. This ‘conversational’ model has been critiqued by many recent theorists (and I do not fault Ihde for this—it is a product of the time of the work). It is very difficult to use Ihde’s insights in the era of the internet and digital communications. As Ihde has shown later, in his descriptive investigations of concrete technologies, these do change our relations with others and with ourselves. However, because of Ihde’s pragmatist bent, again, I do not think he thinks these technologies radically enough.

So is there anything Ihde’s work can reveal for my own project? Strangely enough, the part most interesting to me is Ihde’s “application” of Husserl, when he speaks of the “shape” of sounds—the spatial dimension of sound. Although Ihde argues that this aspect has not been paid attention to enough, he will ultimately focus on the implications of sound’s temporal aspect, critiquing the idea that even when we see something we can “instantanesouly” take it in. Also problematic to me:  Ihde will use his reflections on sound to try and situate speech between sound and music. He writes, “Speech in the human voice is between the dramatic surroundability of music and the precise directionality of the sounds of the things in the environment” (77).
The “directionality” and “space” of sounds, however, is what I am most interested in. The issue is whether Ihde’s assumptions are based on an outmoded metaphysics. For Ihde, the interesting and mysterious thing about “listening” is that it “makes the invisible present in a way similar to the presence of the mute in vision” (51). This appeal to “presence” is what bothers me in the post-Derrida world.

The main way that Ihde talks about the “space” of sound is in learning where things are (directionality) and identifying them. He relies heavily on the phenomenon of echo-location to show how we can hear ‘surfaces’, but then he claims that we can hear the ‘interiors’ of objects as well. To begin with “shape,” he argues that sound reveals how we cannot instantaneously grasp what something “is” but that it requires duration (there again the emphasis on temporality): “So with listening for shape-aspects it often takes repeated and prolonged listening until the fullness of the shape appears” (66). Striking surfaces and hearing sounds are how we can “give things voice” (67).  The whole process is framed in the context of “learning” about the world; once we learn to hear “spatial significations, the endless ways in which we heard interiors comes to mind.” (70). The kind of listening, hearing, and learning that Ihde argues for sound seems disinterested—even the ‘disruptive’ and ‘penetrating’ of the body by sound is not a mode of action, but rather a way to open the existential possibilities of sound:

In the reverberation of a voice given to things by the striking of one thing by another, in the echo which gives a voice to things, and in the penetration which exceeds the limits of visible space is experienced what is possible for listening. (71)

Sounds are not only used for learning about the world around us—this sense of wonder and curiosity cannot always be maintained. This is the naivete of this type of descriptive phenomenology. It also seems that this “giving voice to things” is precisely the kind of Cagean ideology critiqued by Kahn (see below).

Works Cited

Ihde, Don. Listening and Voice: A Phenomenology of Sound. Athens: Ohio UP, 1976. Print.

            ------Postphenomenology and Technoscience: The Peking University Lectures.
                        New York: SUNY, 2009. Print.

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