I recently visited Seattle for the annual PACT (Pacific Association of the Continental Tradition) conference.
The group was small, warm, and sparkling with creative thinking of an ecological valence—a wonderful container for what was my first time speaking at a conference. The arts were also represented, creating a dynamic that wove theory and expression into a truly comprehensive learning experience. As an artist who has been on hiatus to study ecological philosophy over the last few years, the mix of the two had me pensive about my individual disposition. Where do I fall on the spectrum between philosophy and art? Somewhere in the middle, I think.
Each year is governed by a theme that is decided democratically by the group at the end of the previous conference. 2019’s was “The Sea.” What follows is a recording (and the written version) of my presentation in which I consider the meaning of the Sea when engaged through a philosophical approach of sound, of listening, rather than (as philosophy has typically been approached) of sight. Implicit in the essay is my dawning interest in music, a form of artistry that attracts me for its participation in what is primary, namely, vibration! As time unfolds I plan to begin experimenting with a mixture of my voice, field recordings, more traditional means of music-making, and video—experiments that I will share here! But first, philosophy!
“The Sea?” Oh, what do you mean? The surfwind rushes up to me, through me, threatening to flip my hood back. I let it by lifting my chin and am exposed to the sun; its rays blast through the paltry cover of my eyelids. Even with eyes shut, I am blinded by the light. As soon as my awareness shifts to what is present, I am swallowed by the roar and lured into its rocking resonance. The waves move through me, echoing inside, tuning me to sing along. And then I remember: I came here for a reason. I seek the wisdom of the sea, its advice for living. The American marine biologist and nature writer Rachel Carson sought answers from the sea, too. So wise thought she of the sea that she requested her written praise for it be read at her own funeral.Her request was not honored, and so I try to make up for that here: “Now I hear the sea sounds about me,” writes Carson,
The night high tide is rising, swirling with a confused rush of waters against the rocks below my study window. Fog has come into the bay from the open sea, and it lies over water and over the land’s edge, seeping back into the spruces and stealing softly among the juniper and the bayberry. The restive waters, the cold wet breath of the fog, are of a world in which man is an uneasy trespasser; he punctuates the night with the complaining groan and grunt of a foghorn, sensing the power and menace of the sea.
Though some human beings may protest the titanic power of the sea, not all who heed it need feel themselves as trespassers. “These shores,” writes Carson,
so different in their nature and in the inhabitants they support, are made one by the unifying touch of the sea. For the differences I sense in this particular instant of time that is mine are but the differences of a moment determined by our place in the stream of time and in the long rhythms of the sea.
By integrating herself in the rhythms of the sea’s deep sweep of time, Carson meets its majesty with respect rather than complaint. For her, the tenacious creatures of the shore model the excellence of life, a “force as tangible as any of the physical realities of the sea, a force strong and purposeful, as incapable of being crushed or diverted from its ends as the rising tide.”The dramatic meeting place of land and sea is like a sacred text where the wisdom of nature can be read. Wave break after wave break, tide tugging back, I await with vigilance for the sign to be had. “What wisdom, dear sea, have you to bestow upon me?” “Contemplating the teeming life of the shore,” writes Carson, “we have an uneasy sense of the communication of some universal truth that lies just beyond our grasp… The meaning haunts and ever eludes us, and in its very pursuit we approach the ultimate mystery of Life itself.”Elusive and impervious to literal translation as it may be, perhaps the meaning Carson alludes to is one that—if pursued—listened to, can be felt, can be lived. What, in its undulating song, might the sea be trying to teach me?
In his short, little text titled Listening, French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy intends to, as he says, “prick up the philosophical ear: to tug the philosopher’s ear in order to draw it toward what has always solicited or represented philosophical knowledge less than what presents itself to view,” namely, sound.Nancy privileges the resonant structure of sound for its characterization of sensemaking in general. “The perceived possibility of sense,” writes Nancy,
(or, if you like, the transcendental condition of significance, without which it would have no meaning) is overlaid with the resonant possibility of sound: that is, when all is said and done, with the possibility of an echo or a return of sound to self in self. Sense is first of all the rebound of sound, a rebound that is coextensive with the whole folding/unfolding of presence and of the present that makes or opens the perceptible as such…
Rather than in a transcendental subject terraforming reality to fit its nature, Nancy situates his ontology in “pure resonance,” “not only as the condition but as the very beginning and opening up of sense, as beyond-sense or sense that goes beyond signification.”The resonant subject, therefore, is the one whose selfhood arises from rhythmically “feeling-itself-feel.”Critiquing the western philosophical bias toward the visual, Nancy celebrates the sonorous, which, in contrast to the former, “outweighs form. It does not dissolve it, but rather enlarges it; it gives it an amplitude a density, and a vibration or an undulation whose outline never does anything but approach.”Thought according to sight increases the danger of thinking things as being separate in a substantial way. “In terms of the gaze,” writes Nancy, “the subject refers back to itself as object. In terms of listening, it is, in a way, to itself that the subject refers or refers back… [said another way] the visual is tendentially mimetic, and the sonorous tendentially methexic (that is, having to do with participation, sharing, or contagion).”The meaning Rachel Carson senses in the sea may not be one imitated within the sphere of the signified, but perhaps an even grander apprehension of it is possible in the methexic activity of listening.
For Nancy, the undulation of resonance functions as a referral, opening space for the possibility of both sound and meaning. This space between trough and crest is where selfhood, too, emerges—like Aphrodite from seafoam. “A self,” writes Nancy, “is nothing other than a form or function of referral: a self is made of a relationship toself, or of a presence to self.”The tension of resonance assures that to listen “will always…be to be straining toward or in an approach to the self (one should say, in a pathological manner, a fit of self: isn’t [sonorous] sense first of all, every time a crisis of self?).”Sonority binds the human subject to the onslaught of time in the quest for self-understanding; who I am—who I think I am—is always in flux—a perpetual crisis. The experience of selfhood is not, then, much different from what I hear in the ceaseless waves of the rolling sea. Like an elder, the sea’s ancient rhythms impart in me the deep and uncomfortable truth that
to be listening is always to be on the edge of meaning, or in an edgy meaning of extremity, and as if the sound were precisely nothing else than this edge, this fringe, this margin—at least the sound that is musically listened to, that is gathered and scrutinized for itself… as a resonant meaning, a meaning whose sense is supposed to be found in resonance, and only in resonance.
Attuning me to the primacy of resonance in its waves and in myself, the sea molds me for musical listening, what is for Nancy “like the permission, the elaboration, and the intensification of the keenest disposition of ‘auditory sense.’” Fundamental of music is its nature as “the listening of self,” or when listening tendsto resonance in general as if it were made to be listened to.To listen musically, then, is to participate in the resonance of being, in, as Nancy writes,
a relationship to meaning, a tension toward it: but toward it completely ahead of signification, meaning in its nascent state, in the state of return for which the end of this return is not given and hence to the state of return without end, like an echo that continues on its own and that is nothing but this continuance… To be listening is to be inclined toward the opening of meaning.
At the sea’s side, blasted by wind, light, and tide, my anthropocentric expectations to see a sign bottom out as I let myself receive what is present. Listening with my entire being, I open to what Nancy calls
the relationship in self… passing over the register of presence to self, it being understood that the ‘self’ is precisely nothing available (substantial or subsistent) to which one can be ‘present,’ but precisely the resonance of a return. For this reason, listening… to its musical amplification can and must appear to us not as a metaphor for access to self, but as the reality of this access, a reality consequently indissociably ‘mine” and ‘other,’ ‘singular’ and ‘plural,’ as much as it is ‘material’ and ‘spiritual’ and ‘signifying’ and ‘a-signifying.
At the fringe of meaning, tuning my being to the resonance of presence, the dualisms I’ve accustomed myself to looking through begin to blur together into an undulating self of the commons. A song. A dance. In the methexic posture of listening, “when we,” as Nancy writes, “turn resolutely away from the signifying perspective as a final perspective,” we are able to resonate with the “beyond-meaning;” we enjoin the music. Releasing my compulsion for the signified, I make myself receptive to the universal truth that Carson perceived in the sea and feel the incommunicable in my very capacity to listen. The incommunicable, or “beyond-meaning,” is, for Nancy, sound as “communication itself, that thing by which a subject makes an echo—of self, of the other…” “It’s all one,” he writes, “it’s all one in the plural.”In its unifying touch of seemingly disparate shores and in its ceaseless performance of rhythm, the sea embodies the reality of pure resonance. Its meaning is communicated through itself, “not [as a transmission], but [as] a sharing that becomes subject: sharing as subject of all ‘subjects.’ An unfolding, a dance, a resonance.”
The most important lesson the sea may have to teach is that of the necessary distance between sound and sense, what makes music, music. The gulf, the mystery “beyond-significance” “that is not,” writes Nancy, “possible to enter and analyze under any kind of code.” Rather, music requires an intimacy that involves one’s self in the undulation of resonant meaning. The song of the sea, therefore, is at once music itself and a teacher of musical listening, or listening
when it is music that listens to itself. It returns to itself, it reminds itself of itself, and it feels itself as resonance itself: a relationship to self deprived, stripped of all egoism and ipseity. Not ‘itself,’ or the other, or identity, or difference, but alteration and variation, the modulation of the present that changes it in expectation of its own eternity, always imminent and always deferred, since it [eternity] is not in any time. Music is the art of making the outside of time return to every time, making return to every moment the beginning that listens to itself beginning and beginning again. In resonance the inexhaustible return of eternity is played—and listened to.
The sea, humble ancestor, whose song—if listened to as music—reminds me of who I am—who we are—and have always been becoming. My earthbound friend, the sea, teaching me to dance along to the ultimate mystery of life, a meaning communicated in its moving, singing image of eternity. We are no trespassers here.
Carson, Rachel, and Sue Hubbell. The Edge of the Sea. Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
Nancy, Jean-Luc. Listening. Fordham University Press, 2009.
Rachel Carson, The Edge of the Sea, intro. Sue Hubbel (Houghton Mifflin, 1998), that Carson’s request was not honored was mentioned by Hubbel in her introduction, xx.
Carson, The Edge of the Sea, 249.
Carson, The Edge of the Sea, 249-250.
Carson, The Edge of the Sea, 250.
Jean-Luc Nancy, Listening, trans. Charlotte Mandell (Fordham University Press, 2009), 2.
Nancy, Listening, 29-30.
Nancy, Listening, 31.
Nancy, Listening, 8.
Nancy, Listening, 10.
Nancy, Listening, 8.
Nancy, Listening, 9.
Nancy, Listening, 27.
Nancy, Listening, 12.
Nancy, Listening, 41