Review of Listening Publics by Kate Lacey

Listening Publics: The Politics and Experience of Listening in the Media Age, by Kate Lacey (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2013)  ISBN-13: 978-0-7456-6025-7 (Paper), for the Journal of Mass Communication and Society

The introductory chapter of Kate Lacey’s perceptive study immediately sets out the problem she seeks to redress. Even though it a distinct kind of behavior with its own cognitive dimensions, listening has been largely neglected in studies of media and audiences. We treat the work of the ear as a relatively passive process for which there is presumably less to consider. In her words, “academic treatments of listening rarely attend to the connections between the act of ‘listening in’ to specific media texts, the sensory experience of listening and a political philosophy of listening.” (p. 8) We fear the agitator more than his or her auditors. We also assume that while images are magical, the spoken word is something better understood in its presumably static forms. The goal of this thorough volume is to shake away the cobwebs represented by these attitudes, and to point out that there are implicit social obligations to “listen out” expectantly.

Listening Publics is a useful antidote to the glib but clumsy generalizing about “media” that most of us find hard to resist. The book invigorates the same new sensitivities that readers might have after a first encounter with a significant work of media re-theorizing. To be sure, Lacey’s focus is much narrower than the kind of early and panoramic analyses of McLuhan or Ong. She is specifically focused on constructing a high resolution map of what it means to be eavesdropping on the chatter of a community. The broad limiter in her approach is an interest in listening that can be identified as occurring within “publics” and “audiences.” In her conceptually detailed first chapter she notes that these are among a collection of “ordinary but extraordinarily complex words that defy easy definition.” (p. 14). We still puzzle over how to assess the private reception of aural content that can—on a different plane—be understood in terms of its effects on a given media “community.” The chapter offers a conceptual analysis of why it is never easy to draw hard lines separating the “public” from the “private.”

Lacey, who teaches media and cultural studies at the University of Sussex, indicates early in the book that she means to discuss more than audio-only media. The challenge, of course, is to isolate listening in the endlessly transmuted forms of that have grown out of film and video. The problem is compounded by current thinking that is skewed toward the assessment of public discourse either in the idealization of face-to-face exchanges, or with a “hegemony of the visual” that leads us to miss what is unique about discourse understood by what is heard. And so many admire a director like Alfred Hitchcock for the economy of his camera shots, missing the importance of what we hear in his films: the evocative use of ambient sound in Rear Window, or the use of music in films like North by Northwest and Vertigo, which I understand as little operas constructed by Bernard Hermann.

A second challenge is to distinguish between hearing as a sensory/mechanical process, and also subjective one. What the ear processes can obviously be ignored or transformed by the mind. The latter is especially intriguing because the presence of a “public” for a single message opens up interesting questions about the intersubjectivity of aural perception. We are forever discussing what we thought we “heard,” meaning more or less what we and perhaps others think someone meant. This is one effect of the fact that acoustic stimuli are so ephemeral. The “tendency of sound to disappear,” Lacey writes, “means that listening is always also caught up in the moment; it is an active disposition always straining toward the present tense.” (p. 55)

The book is full of reassessments of familiar ideas overdue for  useful expanded discussion: the simple reminder of what “auditorium” means as place to collectively receive another’s words; the usefulness of reconsidering recording as both the “construction” of an event and a “re-creation” of it; the once-vital importance of “group listening” as it was once used by the British and Germans as a recurring political form, and the risks of understanding radio and recordings as mere forms of distribution rather than complex systems of communication.

Innovators especially in the inter-war period in Britain and Germany queried whether broadcasting could develop “radiogenic” forms uniquely adapted to dispersed audiences. As early as the late 1920s Germans and others were experimenting with “acoustic montages,” straight reporting, and live actualities. This section on perfecting unique ways to represent a nation to itself is useful for its mostly European emphasis. It generally excludes similar audio experimentation that was beginning to develop in the United States in the work of Fred Friendly, Norman Corwin, and others.

Lacey also revisits the paradoxical language we use to describe various forms of listening: for example, the ironies in describing “communities” of radio listeners who are dispersed but also connected in real time or, to flip the key variables over, being in the physical proximity of others but, like dancers, caught in a collective trance by a recording from another era. In either case, a common point of agreement made by most analysts is that the “domestication” of listening means a public retreat into the shadows of a more atomized existence. The loss of “reciprocity” inherent in private one-way listening gave Jean-Paul Sartre and many others the general impression of hopelessly passive listeners.

Lacey’s view laid out in her penultimate chapter is somewhat different. Meaningful engagement in a civil life is possible in the presence of receptive and active listeners. “Free speech,” she notes, “is intimately bound up with the responsibility to listen, a responsibility that is shared between the speaker and the listener. Indeed, politics itself could be described at its most basic level as the dynamic between the act of speech and the act of listening.” (p. 168)  And so she asks for consideration of a civil live predicated on the obligations of active listening.

One of the strengths of Listening Publics is that it doesn’t flinch from raising questions that are often just beyond the reach of simple answers or methodologies. It rewards the reader with impressive summaries of prior thought, producing a vast trove for anyone who wants to more thoroughly follow a particular thread of analysis. Some of the work she cites is associated with writers documenting the psychology of the senses (Lucien Febvre, Alain Corbin, Jonathan Sterne and others). Different observers focused on the nature of newly constituted media publics offer ideological or practical obstacles to establishing more durable cultural bonds. Theodor Adorno is one of many who mostly had a dim view of the impoverishment of experience at the hands of any kind of mediated re-presentation. She cites him at length. Even so, no single theory or figure dominates. And one can be gladdened that this study hasn’t fallen under the thrall of neuroscience, where every question about the effects of mediated experience seems to be reduced to an “answer” represented by a brain scan.  Perhaps one could wish for more discussion of music as the aural form that has a lock on many. The ear so readily learns to love the non-discursive forms of organized sound. Beyond the conventional tropes that can produce its visceral ecstasy there may be deeper structures that bridge it more generally to the ways we hear. But Lacey is a disciplined analyst. That kind of diversion is off the margins of a map focused on the politics of listening.

Every history of modern media notes with a hint of surprise that Thomas Edison pronounced the humble acoustic phonograph his favorite invention. But why not?  The spoken word, music, even the sounds of the street, are—for many of us—still the most interesting artifacts of a culture. This book belongs on the small shelf we reserve for those especially evocative studies that can transform our understandings of what seem like familiar processes.


Gary C. Woodward

The College of New Jersey