The Sound of (No) One (Not) Listening

A common complaint is that not enough people listen to serious programs. Is there a method for studying non-listening?
-Paul Lazarsfeld, “Introduction”, Radio Research 1942-1943

The abiding rule of thumb when it comes to the gross people of the world is to just ignore them. It’s not like they’re capable of rational, respectful dialogue. It’s not like pointing out that they’re gross is going to make them be not gross…the Calgary police add, “It violates section 175(1)(A) of the Criminal Code: ‘a disturbance in or near a public place, (1) by fighting, screaming, shouting, swearing, singing or using insulting or obscene language.’” Normally, I am a firm supporter of the right to drop F-bombs whenever and wherever, but if the only thing these clowns understand is the fear of real consequences, then I’m down for it.

A scotsman who can’t watch a movie without shouting…
-Youtube clip title

According to Baudrillard, the territory of reality no longer precedes the map of representation…In the past, a “real” moment occurred when a person experienced another person’s presence and speech, or observed something that was happening in the neighborhood or across the street. Today what we experience more and more are spectacles…

It is with severe difficulty that we measure the strangeness of the present; it might in fact be said that the only means of defining the present is in its strangeness. With this strangeness we differentiate it from the past. By riding this feeling of the present’s strangeness we make our claims to the future, a forever uninhabited wilderness where theorists of all sorts set up claims and some strike gold. Sometimes this gold is found around their less than fresh corpse. The gold is fought over, the speculator at that point is dead, not much can be done for them. The gold may not even be gold. But then, like Schroedinger’s cat, gold only becomes “gold” insofar as we observe it as being such. Tooth fillings work similarly.

When Schroedinger opened his speculative box, had the cat died in a position to suggest it was chasing its tail?


What exactly is the sound of nothing being not-listened to? Traditionally: a tree falling in the forrest, a pin dropping, crickets, sneezing, the audience talking over the performer, “talk to the hand”, the audience heckling in an attempt to break down the imagined wall between audience and performer.

The inertia of a set of relations that in their proper placement create the performer and audience, that create the magical fourth wall, are multi-tiered, their allegiances scattered, flexible and frequently redrawn. The audience recreate their communicative end of the relationship in different forms that have a surprising level of complexity given the limit to their variety; the clap comes to be the sign of polite impatience, an “other” category for that which can’t comfortably be fit in the space of the laugh shout or boo, the acknowledgment of appreciation, and the impetus for an extension of performance. To invert the snow clone, if the eskimos have 50 words for snow, the audience has one clap correspond to 50 responses.

The theatergoers’ etiquette, always a tenuous treaty between two parties in conflict, reproduces itself in the relation passersby take to the production of moving images. While traveling around the country making a film about the US, I found that when I would take urban landscape shots hoping for people to walk through them, I would need to usher them, Moses-like, parting the sea of the image before they felt comfortable walking through. Successful long-running TV shows have worked on usually disingenuous flirtations of a new sort of relation between the audience and the performers; the Today Show’s famous police-style barricade surrounding crowds of eager TV viewers, the constant casting call on late night and daytime talk shows to “Be in our audience!”, the voting structure of talent competition shows, and in journalism the necessarily misleading “man on the street” interview.

The promise of performance is two-sided. The performer seeks a variable relation to the audience, the audience seeks the temporary feeling of community in their shared identity as the spectator. The uneasy elements of performance art and stand-up comedy are that they blur this line; the comic will attack a hostile audience, the performance artist will designate unusual and unrehearsed performance from the audience. The television on the other hand, despite the broad range of response it can elicit, safely contains both the space of the performer and that of the audience through what I guess could be called a two-state solution. Yet the hostilities on both sides remain, and the borders keep getting redrawn.

Yesterday’s shooting of two reporters on the air by a colleague who had been demoted (in his own mind, which is the primary space from which to analyze the spectator, who exists in communal interiority) from the space of performer to that of audience member has elicited two days of front page coverage in several international papers because, while the news usually is meant to be understood as allegory by the reader, this incident has extreme allegorical implications for the journalists themselves. The racial and gender components provide a means through which to explore unconsciously the incident’s dimension as a breach of trust between the set social relations in the production of news.

These relations and their once seemingly set qualities of course have been repeatedly questioned in the last several months. When activists claiming to be with Black Lives Matter took over the stage at a Bernie Sanders rally, decentralized discourse on the internet immediately began grappling with the question of what interpretation to use as a frame. Were the activists attempting to create a news story themselves, were they in the employ of the Clinton campaign, could they even be properly considered to be emissaries of Black Lives Matter at all, could Sanders’ followers in fact be racists? This swamp of confusion showed its spirit in the interchangeability of descriptions of Black Lives Matter as being a “movement” or a “hashtag”.

The reporting on the presidential campaign that reaches a broad saturation point is similarly defined by performative ruptures of identities-any Donald Trump “gaff” and the coverage following could suffice to prove my point here. In these spaces the viewer and journalist can explore the only partially conscious realization that the boundaries have shifted or possibly even collapsed between consumer and producer. With a TV or a radio, I can’t produce TV and consume unless I’m within the industry (outside small strongholds like public access and college stations, which still regiment the production of images in time and space in a manner the internet and its two-way delivery systems such as the computer, phone, or tablet, don’t.) CNN will often do stories on viral videos, in part to sustain the illusion they’re still monolithic curators of the image, in part a peacemaking concession to the rupture of TV communications, the way human interest stories worked for years and years.

New etiquettes are being created and smashed several times a day; the seemingly all encompassing space of the norm has enough cracks where the chaotic forces lurking behind it in shadows for all this time can be seen more clearly than the normatives.

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