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Listening, Mediation, Event: Anthropological and Sociological Perspectives

  • Georgina Born


This paper outlines an approach to listening drawn from the anthropology and sociology of music, arguing that there is a pressing need for comparative empirical studies of listening. I suggest that the terms of the discussion should shift from listening to the broader category of musical experience, in this way allowing questions of the encultured, affective, corporeal and located nature of musical experience to arise in a stronger way than hitherto. I propose a focus on the relations between musical object and listening subject, where this entails analysis of the social and historical conditions that bear on listening, and of the changing types of subjectivity brought to music. The point is that neither these conditions, nor the forms of music's mediation, nor the relations between musical object and subject can be fully known in advance. I sketch three perspectives from anthropology and sociology that indicate the kinds of insight offered by empirical research which takes listening-as-musical-experience, and the situated, relational analysis of musical subjects and objects, as its focus.



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1 Two examples of maladaptive forms of listening follow. On music's capacity to engender fantasized identifications with other cultures that can be less than benign for the cultures evoked, see Georgina Born, ‘Music and the Representation/Articulation of Sociocultural Identities’, Western Music and its Others: Difference, Representation, and Appropriation in Music, ed. Georgina Born and David Hesmondhalgh (Berkeley, CA, and London, 2000), 31–7, esp. pp. 35–6. For a critique of the tendency in some recent music sociology to conceive of music listening universally as ‘a positive resource for active self-making’, see David Hesmondhalgh, ‘Towards a Critical Understanding of Music, Emotion and Self-Identity’, Consumption, Markets and Culture, 11 (2008), 329–43.

2 Cross, p. 69.

3 Andrew Barry, ‘Materialist Politics’, chapter 4 of Political Matter: Technoscience, Democracy and Public Life, ed. Bruce Braun and Sarah Whatmore (forthcoming).

4 See, inter alia, James H. Johnson, Listening in Paris: A Cultural History (Berkeley, CA, 1995); Bruce Smith, The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor (Chicago, IL, 1999); Matthew Riley, Musical Listening in the German Enlightenment: Attention, Wonder and Astonishment (Aldershot, 2004); Mark M. Smith, Hearing History: A Reader (Athens, GA, 2004); Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham, NC, 2003); and Tim J. Anderson, Making Easy Listening: Material Culture and Postwar American Recording (Minneapolis, MN, 2006). See also Michael Bull and Les Back, The Auditory Culture Reader (Oxford, 2003), and Veit Erlmann, Hearing Cultures: Essays on Sound, Listening and Modernity (Oxford, 2004).

5 Max Paddison, Adorno's Aesthetics of Music (Cambridge, 1993), 216.

6 Theodor W. Adorno, Einleitung in die Musiksoziologie: Zwölf theoretische Vorlesungen (Frankfurt am Main, 1962), trans. E. B. Ashton as Introduction to the Sociology of Music (New York, 1976), chapter 1. Adorno insists that he does not intend to disparage the listening types described (trans. Ashton, p. 18), but nonetheless they are negatively drawn. For a discussion of the history of the radio research on which the types are based, and how it embodies Adorno's hostile relationship to commercially orientated empirical sociological research, see Richard Leppert, ‘Commentary [on Culture, Technology, and Listening]’, Theodor W. Adorno, Essays on Music, ed. Leppert (Berkeley, CA, 2002), 213–50, esp. pp. 213–31.

7 Philosophically, this approach recalls Alfred N. Whitehead's focus on the shifting relations between prehending subject and prehended object. See Alfred N. Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York, 1978), chapter 2.

8 But see Georgina Born, ‘On Musical Mediation: Ontology, Technology and Creativity’, Twentieth Century Music, 2 (2005), 7–36, and eadem, ‘Afterword: Recording – From Reproduction to Representation to Remediation’, The Cambridge Companion to Recorded Music, ed. Nicholas Cook, Eric Clarke, Daniel Leech-Wilkinson and John Rink (Cambridge, 2009), 286–304.

11 Feld, Sound and Sentiment, 6.

9 Steven Feld, Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics and Song in Kaluli Expression (Philadelphia, PA, 1982), 41.

10 Steven Feld, Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics and Song in Kaluli Expression (Philadelphia, PA, 1982), 164, 30.

12 Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (London, 1986); Stuart Hall, ‘Encoding / Decoding’, Culture, Media, Language, ed. idem, Dorothy Hobson, Andrew Lowe and Paul Willis (London, 1980), 117–46; David Morley, The ‘Nationwide’ Audience: Structure and Decoding (London, 1980); Marie Gillespie, Television, Ethnicity and Cultural Change (London, 1995); Tamar Liebes and Elihu Katz, The Export of Meaning: Cross-Cultural Readings of Dallas (New York, 1990).

13 See Bourdieu, Distinction, Table 1 (p. 15) and Figure 1 (p. 17), in which musical tastes are correlated with class fractions.

14 See Bourdieu, Distinction, Table 1 (p. 15) and Figure 1 (p. 17), in which musical tastes are correlated with class fractions. 18–19.

15 It is worth noting that Bourdieu's critics find his heavily structuralist, deterministic reading of the pattern of relations between class structure and consumption reifying and contentious, and lacking an account of the positivity of the aesthetic experiences of the working class. See, for example, Richard Jenkins, Pierre Bourdieu (London, 1992), esp. chapter 6, and Georgina Born, ‘The Social and the Aesthetic: Methodological Principles in the Study of Cultural Production’, Meaning and Method: The Cultural Approach to Sociology, ed. Isaac Reed and Jeffrey C. Alexander (Boulder, CO, 2009), 77–116, esp. pp. 84–5.

16 Tony Bennett, Mike Savage, Elizabeth B. Silva, Alan Warde, Modesto Gayo-Cal and David Wright, Culture, Class, Distinction (London, 2009).

17 Such a semanticization is obvious also in the instrumental design of the commercial radio station Classic FM, which builds its music programming around pieces selected according to the planned orchestration of mood.

18 A key limitation of Bennett et al.'s 2009 study is that it lacks an analysis of the changing nature of musical competence today in relation to the wider historical transformations which have seen jazz and the ‘art’ end of certain popular music genres, as well as experimental, minimalist, systems, neo-Romantic and other late twentieth-century postmodern compositional styles, acquire the cultural legitimacy that they previously lacked. This is signalled by numerous changes in recent decades: the development of serious critical discourses devoted to these musics, as well as the rise of academic studies, educational programmes in colleges and universities, and changes to the music curriculum in schools such that they are increasingly taught. All of this has led to their growing, if variable, public cultural legitimation, as well as to the existence of new bodies of knowledge about their musical, formal and aesthetic properties – that is, new sources of musical competence. To understand the significance of the changing forms of musical consumption and competence, some account of this picture of wider transformations in the hierarchies of musical and cultural value should have been brought into this research.

19 For a historical overview of these evolving conditions, see Sterne, The Audible Past.

20 Michael Bull, Sounding Out the City: Personal Stereos and the Management of Everyday Life (Oxford, 2000); idem, Sound Moves: iPod Culture and Urban Experience (London, 2007).

21 Shuhei Hosokawa, ‘The Walkman Effect’, Popular Music, 4 (1984), 165–80 (p. 176).

22 Arild Bergh and Tia DeNora, ‘From Wind-Up to iPod: Techno-Cultures of Listening’, The Cambridge Companion to Recorded Music, ed. Cook et al., 102–15.

23 Tia DeNora, Music in Everyday Life (Cambridge, 2000); Bull, Sounding Out the City and Sound Moves.

24 It should be noted that the focus of the studies by Bull and DeNora is on British music consumers.

25 DeNora, Music in Everyday Life, 49.

26 Bull, Sounding Out the City, 180–1.

27 Bull, Sounding Out the City, 194.

28 Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936), Illuminations, ed. Hanna Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York, 1969), 219–53; and Theodor W. Adorno, ‘On the Fetish-Character in Music and the Regression of Listening’ (1938), idem, Essays on Music, ed. Leppert, 288–317.

29 These processes are particularly evident in the role that music is enjoined to play in social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook, where music becomes an extension, illustration or adornment of some advertised facet of the self.

30 For further discussion of the technological mediation of musical experience, see Georgina Born, ‘Afterword: Recording – From Reproduction to Representation to Remediation’.

31 On the concept of the musical assemblage, see Georgina Born, ‘On Musical Mediation’, which draws on Deleuze's reading of Foucault: see Gilles Deleuze, Foucault (London, 1988), and Paul Rabinow, Anthropos Today (Princeton, NJ, 2003), chapter 3.

32 For an alternative conception of a ‘musical event’, see Tia DeNora, After Adorno: Rethinking Music Sociology (Cambridge, 2003), chapter 2, esp. pp. 45–56.

33 Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Ethics and Politics in Tagore, Coetzee, and Certain Scenes of Teaching’, Diacritics, 32/3–4 (2002), 17–31 (p. 17). I am grateful to Ben Etherington for this reference, provided in his paper detailed in note 34.

34 Ben Etherington, ‘“Setting to Work” in Ignorance: Sartre, Fanon and the Problem of Literary Knowledge’, paper presented to the Postcolonial Pedagogies Conference, Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Cambridge, 11 October 2008.

Listening, Mediation, Event: Anthropological and Sociological Perspectives

  • Georgina Born


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