The Language of Listen

By Judith Hamann

What do we mean when we ask you to listen?

To listen is to obey; it is a command, a request. “Listen to this”, “listen to me”, “listen to us”. To listen is also to lean, to desire, to make oneself available; to seek out and be vulnerable to a sound, a message, an alternate perspective. To listen can be to agree, to assent. By participating in the act of listening, we allow ourselves to be convinced. To listen can be a state of expectation, to wait for a sound, for information. It is to pay attention, it is an action; active, intentional, purposeful, as differentiated from “to hear” which is passive.

I would like to interrogate with this piece, why “LISTEN”? The idea of listening holds a huge amount of potential for how to position, comprehend, and develop a sense of purpose and identity around this project. As well as the etymological strands, definitions, and codified usage of the word “listen,” I suspect there are links, relationships, and layers of meaning that are yet to be articulated. In particular, I am interested in the possibilities that the act of listening implies in terms of the gendering of language, communication and expression.

Listening can, curiously enough, be viewed as a gendered act.

Like much of the terminology that tends towards dichotomies, what does it mean for us if “to speak” is masculine, and “to listen” is feminine? This idea is not based on sex (biological); in fact, the sex of the speaker or the listener has been demonstrated as having no real impact on the ability to either communicate, or to listen. Within the social construct of gender however, the stereotype is so dominant that, while learned, this forms an active part of how we interact. Men are traditionally assigned the public, political, powerful role of

Men are traditionally assigned the public, political, powerful role of speaker; they are expected and encouraged to take on this role.

Women, on the other hand, are expected to be more “muted” in their communication. The stereotype here is that women are passive, receptive, understanding, emotional, domestic, and interestingly in terms of this project, personal.

If we examine the idea that there is a tension between the act of speaking and that of listening, what are the implications for this project? To speak is to make something external, to send something outwards. To listen is to internalise, to take something into oneself. It is an interesting observation of studies into gendered communication that women are more likely to be interrupted when speaking, by both men and women. The implication is that the female-coded role in communication is that of being receptive, rather than being the protagonist. If listening and speaking are indeed implicitly gendered, are we are asking for a shift in roles? Are we requesting the opportunity to speak, and be listened to? If so, the way that we choose to speak becomes increasingly important.

I am not attempting to set up an opposition, or tackle the greater problem of stereotyping in terms of communication, how men and women are perceived and received as speakers (one only has to look at a panel discussion to observe the dynamics at play). This is not a blanket, uniform observation either, by any means. What interests me is how to construct a communicative project, through both spoken and written word, that is not necessarily an attempt to adopt a “masculine” public speaker, aggressive or impersonal voice? How do we manufacture a female approach to speaking out? The artist Hannah Wilke wrote, “If women have failed to make ‘universal’ art because we’re trapped within the ‘personal’, why not universalize the ‘personal’ and make it the subject of our art?” Could we use this idea without necessarily relegating this work to the purely confessional? Could we use this idea to create a context for personal testimony that also encompasses historical, musical, and gender discussion?

The challenge for me is how to maintain the same kind of energy that exploded when Evelyn posted that first comment on Facebook? Because this is personal, and in some ways, this is domestic, but that does not mean it needs to be passive. The strength of this project and its approach is that it has happened organically, and hasn’t yet been forced to adapt to any norms or conventions. In its unformed early stages, this is a project with amazing potential. We have the opportunity to develop an alternate means of writing our own history, of creating canon, and significantly, the project enables an unusual amount of freedom in the way we write it.

Writing about subjective individual experience is fraught, and its perceived failure can be viewed in terms of negatively framing the personal, an aspect of reflection that is regarded in some ways as inherently feminine. As our concept of self- description has evolved over time, the idea that in order to accurately represent the reality of a discussion, we must do so through a single perspective, ideally that of an (impossibly) impartial observer, has become the dominant form of attempting to describe our individual and collective experience as artists. Reflect for a moment on the varying degrees of validity in writing: that writing ensconced in the codes and conventions of an empirical approach is perceived as solid, reliable, somehow more ”truthful”, while the confessional, poetic, reflective are seen as suspect, unverifiable. While I am well aware of the importance of peer reviewed, scholarly writing that follows necessary conventions in terms of proliferating knowledge of a certain kind of value, I am equally convinced that other kinds of writing also have a place that is not necessarily able to be evaluated so clearly (nor should it be), in terms of a hierarchy of importance.

The “genderless” and disembodied observer that informs so much of how we “should” approach writing about our experience as artists, and in particular as artists that identify as or with the female gender, can be viewed as something of a decoy in terms of the strong gender bias built into the way we construct language and observation. For me, this plays into a deeper problem that is based upon and sets up a series of binary statements. These are often coded as masculine and feminine: mind/body, material/spiritual, belief/ritual, action/thought. This can be seen in the musical binaries discussed elsewhere in this project, for example the opposition between noisy and nice. The feminine loaded concept in these relationships is almost always perceived as less reliable, more unstable, or lacking authority.

The problem with constructing a discussion based on dichotomies (not that I am attempting to tackle the complexities of the philosophical foundations of these ideas) is that these relationships do not so easily allow for fluidity of movement between positions, ideas, or flexibility in terms of a spectrum of gender. Why is it perceived as problematic when women are noisy, aggressive, or active? Why is so much of the language around female artists coded as the weaker side of the same adjectival coin? Can an artist be both brutal and domestic? I would suggest that examples of these kind of artists can be readily found, yet they are either less likely to be discussed, or to warrant an examination of the “contradictory” qualities that are not so easily categorised. Binaries, such as those I’ve mentioned, place limitations on the possibility that there are alternative approaches to constructing discourse that may indeed be gendered, and that this might be just as important and valid. For example, could the “weaker” roles in all of this – the personal, emotional, decorative, the domestic – be a way to enter into an alternate way of creating knowledge?

What do I really mean then by posing the idea of a “female” approach to the language of this project? I suppose that my intention with this piece is to raise questions about how we generate material, how we write it, and how we respond to it. That we can incorporate the personal, the emotional, the aspects of an approach to writing that have so often been coded as feminine and therefore considered “less than”, and that this is in fact a completely valid way of facilitating discussion. I am suggesting that the approach to ideas need not conform to the idea of truth being told from above, that we reconsider the genderless observer as authority, and instead work from the basis that ideas are suggested, rather than dictated. We could decide that this is a dialogue and that through the process of communication between a range of contributors, ideas and knowledge can be transformed, and that the writing process itself forms a way of understanding this project, our position as female artists, each other and the world.

For contributors, consider the idea that as well as the subject matter being concerned with female representation, the way you choose to approach it can be equally expressive and important. For the “listeners”, those reading the contributions, my hope for this project is that by asking you to “listen”, we can establish an openness on behalf of the reader, in terms of the project itself, the ideas shared, and the manner in which they are expressed. I hope that this openness can enable real discussion, provoke written responses, and even perhaps shift the way gender informs our experience as female artists.

The idea of constructing a female approach to writing about our experience as artists is one that can become problematic in some respects. I think it will miss the point completely if it is manufactured by an individual and disseminated as something correct, and final, or if it is merely an way to vent grievances (although as a process for finding a way into discussion, I don’t mean to invalidate anyone’s experiences, or the need to express them). There is something both frightening and exciting about this project in that its overall shape is still unknown, and will be dictated by a community that is still finding itself.

I appreciate the difficulty for all considering involving themselves not to have reservations about the validity of their contribution, uncertainty as to the direction the content for a project of this nature might go, how it might be “managed”, how it might reflect on all of us as participants as we broaden our community to encompass an ever growing range of voices and experiences, some of which will naturally be contradictory to our own. However, perhaps the most crucial thing at this stage is an acknowledgement of its very possibility, and an awareness as we compose our responses that this is an attempt to construct something on its own terms, on our own terms.

Chris Kraus wrote, “There’s not enough female irrepressibility written down. I’ve fused my silence and repression with the entire female gender’s silence and repression. I think the sheer fact of women talking, being, paradoxical, inexplicable, flip, self-destructive but above all else public is the most revolutionary thing in the world”. Perhaps just by beginning, by attempting this project, we have already made a step forward in terms of visibility and expression of female, or female-identifying musicians. We are already tackling the question of what we mean when we ask you to listen. One of the most important contributions, I feel, that rethinking the way we write and communicate can achieve is the creation of an alternate space and pattern of generating knowledge and ideas. This might be different to the kind of public space that is coded as masculine, but I hope it could handle the idea of feminine expression in a way that is not intuited as inferior, or weakened, but allow room for wherever on the spectrum of expression one might wish to position themselves, whatever cocktail of intuition or ferocity one may choose to explore. Most important of all however, is the acknowledgement that the very fact of this project being expressed in the first place is of no little significance.