Saturday, July 14, 2007

Is Listening Silent?

To pose the question more exactly, Is listening to another person speak something we do silently? Merleau-Ponty takes from Daniel Lagoche the idea that listening does not take place in silence because (a) the listener anticipates spoken words and formulates a response, and (b), inversely, the speaker has an implicit belief in the listener's comprehension (Consciousness and the Acquisition of Language, p. 67). To regard these phenomena as being other than silent one must have a sense of language as a whole as being something performed out loud, such that even reading, because it engages with language, must be understood at its core as a phenomenon of the out loud.

Atlernatively, we could adopt the position of Max Picard, for whom "[r]eal speech is in fact nothing but the resonance of silence" (The World of Silence, p. 27). Faced with these two extremes, we might be inclined to negotiate a middle ground. But first let's examine how Merleau-Ponty is in fact defining language to see what sense it makes to regard listening to another speak as also being a phenomenon of articulated speech.

[L]anguage is a surpassing (operated by the subject on the signification at his disposal) which is stimulated by the usage made of words in his environment. Language is an act of transcending. One cannot consider it simply as a container for thought; it is necessary to see language as an instrument for conquest of self by contact with others.

(p. 63)


The function of language is only a particular case of the general relation between self and others, which is the relation between two consciousnesses, of which each one projects itself in the other.

(p. 68)

Again, picking up on an argument from Kurt Goldstein's Language and Language Disturbances:

We must place the accent on the productivity of language: language is a totality of instruments for our relationships with people. It reflects to what degree we are capable of inventions. It is a manifestation of the link that we have with other people and with ourselves.

(p. 73)

And finally:

All language is mind. It is a verbal melody which presupposes an intellectual vigilance. But the mind that governs language is not mind for itself; it is paradoxically a mind that possesses itself only by losing itself in language.

(p. 77)

Is it clear from Merleau-Ponty's thinking about language here that language is, to use Cavarero's phrase, destined for speech? Does he see that that the relationality of language is fundamentally acoustic, or that language possesses a resonance of the body, the body who speaks? In this text, to address the totality of language Merleau-Ponty does not point directly to its embodiment, but rather, borrowing an idea from von Humboldt, to its innere Sprachform, the "totality of processes and expressions that are produced when we are at the point of expressing our thought or of understanding the thought of other people" (p. 76). The body is notably not excluded from consideration as part of the totality. However, Merleau-Ponty's overarching concern here appears to be with consciousness as such. I won't ask which perspective is truer to the phenomenon of language; I will ask, however, whether it makes sense to think of listening as other than silent if the primary fact of language is not its embodiment in speech. What exactly is our primary mode of contact with others? How we answer this question will determine whether we can make sense of the argument that listening to another person speak does not take place in silence, though even if we do comprehend the argument as Merleau-Ponty intends, we still may find room for disagreement, for instance, a possibility of valuing silence as such. That is, if we choose to view listening as an "instrumentality of speech" aren't we also implicitly encroaching upon silence, allowing language to cover everything.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 10:07 AM.


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