Notes on Receptivity and Listening (written for the Spoken Web conference, May 31, 2019)

Years ago, my teacher Nicole Markotić told our creative writing class that we should never apologize. But here I am, about to apologize for my paper, which, despite my desire to offer up something like a useful argument or reading, sees me presenting a haze of preliminary questions. This is my way of inviting conversation, sure, but it’s also an acknowledgement that as I approach the twin problems of listening and receptivity, I’m not sure how I am meant to comport myself.

This paper starts and was sparked by a conversation that my friend and comrade Deanna Fong and I had while walking from University College on the University of Toronto Campus and King’s Noodle at Spadina and Dundas. We were talking, or was it that I was complaining, about the March 8th day long event “Listen Deep: Poetry, Sound, and Multitudinous Remix” – an event organized by poet Margaret Christakos as part of her work as the writer in residence for University College. “Listen Deep” invited six poets and a cadre of undergraduate students to chase the linked practices of deep listening and multivocal performance. My very physical reaction to the evening’s performances – I needed to leave the room because the sound edged me into an anxiety attack – sparked a complaint that led Deanna to invite me to think through my poorly articulated grievance.

I want to do this by putting “Listen Deep” in rough dialogue with another event – the April 12 workshop “The University and the Challenge of Indigenous Storytelling,” which attempted to think through the ways the university classroom is unreceptive to storytelling and, despite this, the ways storytelling might transform the university classroom. This storytelling workshop was wildly different than Christakos’ event, but shared with it a set of questions about how and why we listen, poised between information and affect, between signal and noise, between recognition and freedom. Our listening caught between desires for understanding and reciprocality and impulses to master and extract. In this mess, I want to ask (but not answer) what we do with clashing desires for signal across the complicated relational spaces we share when noise can cut off relation just as easily as it can open up space for it.

“Listen Deep” takes its name from the practice of deep listening as conceptualized by Pauline Oliveros – a practice marked by a meditative and improvisational attentiveness to the present. Deep listening, she suggests, involves “listening in as many ways as possible to everything that can be heard all the time.” For Oliveros, listening needs to be cultivated. “It’s something, she suggests, “that you can deepen with practice and with receptivity” (qtd in Mockus 165). “Listen Deep” paired this interest in the cultivation of listening and receptivity with remixed language, multivocal performance, and unpredictable spatial movement – all of which was most evident in the final event of the day: a set of performances from Christakos, Oana Avasilichioei, Donia Mounsef, Sachiko Murakami, Charlie Petch, Moez Surani, a group of University College students (Erika Dickinson, Ashley Manou, Shelley Rafailov, Tameed Shafiq, Dahlia Vionnet, and Kristen Zimmer), and two musicians (Anne Bourne and Karen Ng).

The mix of listening and sounding practiced by both performers and audience in the space of Listen Deep negotiated a tension between signal and noise by sliding between them – a queer feminist strategy that Shannon Maguire reads in Erin Moure’s poetry, in particular the sense-jamming poetic research of O Cidadan. “In O Cidadan,” Maguire argues, “Moure offers an innovative staging of the question of estrangement: ‘What if we listen to the noise and not the signal?’” (n. pag.). For Maguire, noise is a precondition for Moure’s hospitality. Moure “unbinds the encounter itself from the expectation of recognition by making noise – that shifting, threshold of relation – the subject of attention” (n. pag.). The noisy page acts as a threshold for encounter, where shaken from the transparencies of recognition, the reader is asked to read with the grain of Moure’s noise.

In its attachment to noise, to overlap and repetition, to spatial improvisation and choreography, to multivocal and multipositional sounding, the deep listening that “Listen Deep” asked of its audience echoes the staged threshold of O Cidadan, but moves its durational encounter from the slow reflective screen of the page to the hotter space of the room. In particular, this turn to sonic and spatial noise organizes Christakos’ performance that closed the event. Take Hajer Mirwali’s account, published on the Town Crier:

The night ended with Margaret standing on the library carrels alongside three other women, all reading and recombining the piece “Arioso” from her text Evanescence. The women’s voices and silences overlapped and Margaret asked the audience to call back any phrases we heard. Soon, the room was yelling: reservoirs, ramen, caress, uneven revenue avenues, we senesce, and at one point all chanting, “we seize we seize WE SEIZE.” (March 25, 2019)

I turn to Mirwali’s account rather than write my own because I wasn’t in the room for the performance. Instead, I was sitting outside in the stairwell. I had a deeply physical reaction to the space and the sound, having to move at different points to the back of the room and out into the stairwell to calm my strong anxiety. It’s not a new feeling, requiring extra care in crowds and unpredictable or relationally messy spaces. My body makes itself unwelcome in the suddenly inhospitable space of the library in an ironic echo of a piece performed by Charlie Petch earlier in the evening about photosensitivity and their need to wear a blindfold on the subway. There was something in the virtuality of the space, in its rhythm, in the way its multitudinousness produced a relational unpredictability (even as it was bracketed by the predictability of the institution). In the room of Christakos’ performance, noise posed a material and virtual limit to my listening. What happens when the atomistic swerve of the clinamen works to move the relations around me and I, a brick wall in the rain storm, can’t be moved? Or, worse, do I bend out like a broken umbrella? What is an avant-garde line of flight when you’re pushed out of the room? What is an avant-garde line of flight when the caterers are at the back, packing up their gear? What if I am unable to listen in a space like that? Do I just need, as Maguire suggests, to apprentice myself to the noise the way I would to a difficult poem? Or is the answer messier than either of those, incorporating parts of both while also touching parts of experience that I haven’t learned to account for yet?

How do I negotiate this limit to my own receptivity without just rejecting the noisy room altogether? How do I hold myself open and is holding myself open enough? Unable to learn to listen with the grain of the room because my body couldn’t stand it, I found myself not only unable to listen with the depth requested of me, but also unable to call for a level of tact that would allow me to engage with or even be in the room. Tact is a difficult keyword. When Erin Manning talks about the dance floor as a site for experimentation, she frames tact oppositionally. As opposed to touch, which negotiates between historically-determined choreographies and the improvisational potentials embedded in the reciprocal dynamics of proximity, tact is tied to social restriction and has a policing dynamic, while also being paradoxically tied to consent. Tact can involve both the ugly demand for others to stop touching and the request for others to stop touching you. The dynamic between touch and tact runs perpendicular to noise and signal. On one hand to call for tact is to demand that others comport themselves properly, and, on another, to call for tact is to noisily refuse the dominant structure of relation. Echoing this, to demand a signal is to demand that others yoke themselves to a recognizable informational position – make it so I can understand you. At the same time, to demand a signal can carry a wish to be called into relation – I can’t quite make out what you’re saying.

As I reflected on this set of questions and keywords, on the way Christakos’ event made me feel, on my relationship to the room and its relations, I also started thinking about my notebook, particularly as I sat around the circle of “The University and the Challenge of Indigenous Storytelling” – a workshop organized around a series of stories told by Lee Maracle, Dawnis Kennedy, Brenda Wastasecoot, and Keren Rice. As I sat with my notebook on my lap, I thought about its agency and its role as a prosthetic to my listening, particularly in a room where the conversation in the room turned in and out of questions about information and pedagogy. The notebook is a tool for listening, for following arguments, particularly useful when the talk has a clear signal that’s recognizable. But how do we measure which signals are recognizable and which appear as noise. The notebook is the tool of spies, cops, and psychoanalysts furiously scribbling as they scrabble for information that fits a readymade category of bad behaviour – like the informants and vice investigators Saidiya Hartman spots at the edge of the dance floor who “jotted notes about the layout of the club, the names of the regulars” (305) in order to obtain enough proof to secure an arrest (arrest as both carcerality and the halting of movement). Sitting in the room, I found my notebook lose some of its pull in the middle of stories that had a relationship to information I couldn’t entirely read (or for which I had to change my mode of receptivity). If I was to apprentice myself to listen to the countersignal of story, my notebook was suddenly of little use because of the way I had been trained to use it. Flashbacks to Friere and the banking model, sure. I thought back to middle and high school classrooms where the overhead projector buzzed its transparency and I, an ideal settler subject, copied everything into my notebook. A hidden curriculum organized around the consumption and reproduction of information. Signal received.

In his essay “Who is the Text in this Class?” Warren Cariou describes his and his students’ worries about the relationship between memory, storytelling, and the drive to extract and transcribe the correct line of information or argument. For Cariou’s students and for me, the notebook becomes a necessary tool for this mode of listening. Cariou describes the way his students, listening to Cree storyteller Louis Bird, participated in furious notetaking fueled by a terror over a “lack of access” to primary texts, but ironically couldn’t retain the story without their notes, which fix them outside of the imperfect flux of memory and repetition – story as a dead consumable rather than something living, contemporary, and inconsistent. Stories and oral histories as something that “refuse[s] to be settled” (as Cariou playfully puts it). This isn’t noise, but, then again, noise is relative to the expressive coding that shapes the ways we practice listening. Isn’t noise a signal we haven’t learned to listen to?

I’ve been thinking a lot about frames of reference ever since reading Mark Rifkin’s Beyond Settler Time, where he argues that settler temporal perspectives bend and warp the ways that Indigenous people can live, restricted to the past or pressured to assimilate in the present. Rifkin lays this, in part, on settler understandings of time as linear, progressive, and unified, leading him to ask “[w]hat happens to the possibilities for conceptualizing Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination when they, a priori, are understood as occurring within a singular temporal formation oriented by settler coordinates?” (9). We need to ask a similar question about our literary receptivities. Any listener working to extract information does so through a frame of reference that shapes both their worldview and their spatial practices and we need to worry about snapping back to that frame like the questions at the end of the Storytelling circle, where, after discussing storytelling, pedagogy, repetition, memory, land, information, we were snapped back to 1990 and the white reactionary worries around appropriation, followed by Maracle bringing us back by suggesting that we (meaning the settlers in the room) needed to meet her where she is (rather than the other way around).

If this paper lands with a thud, it’s likely because my thinking through this problem is unfinished. I want to work through a nested resistance to structural signal between the avant-garde faith in noise as an evental signal breaker, a clinamen that knocks loose meaning to open up space for new forms of life, and the slower engagements of decolonization, which don’t wait around for the hand of history and instead operate through refrain, repetition, and the pedagogical mobilization of story. But already it’s not that simple. How do I negotiate my own modes of settler orientation at the nesting point of discourses, of practices, of frequencies? How do I negotiate the junctions of the signals I depend on and the signals I can’t process? And how do I hold on to that question of limits, of the points at which I am unable or unwilling to be receptive, the points of bullheaded stubbornness? And if I’m unable to listen, where does that leave me? Last fall, I taught Henri Lefebvre’s essay “Seen from the Window” and my students and I grappled with his insistence that understanding a space requires a certain amount of exteriority, sure, but also, in his words, “to grasp a rhythm it is necessary to have been grasped by it” (27). For him, and for us, understanding requires a paradoxical position inside and outside a spatial rhythm. For me, it’s the second half of his dialectic that seems to be the problem. It’s easy to grasp the safety of the frame, to hold onto its readymade hooks and look for the recognizable. But my unanswered question, I suppose, has to do with navigating the rhythms of the unpredictable, opening up space by either (or both?) occasioning an unguaranteed rupture in social form or by performing a reciprocal microethics of engagement that pitches and rolls with the intimacies of life. How do we receive each other?