“The greatest secrets of our being are hidden from us, however: they lie in the secrecy of our depths.” Gaston Bachelard in Earth and Reveries of Repose: An Essay on Images of Interiority
In recent months my focus has been to better understand how imagination assists or hinders understanding our partner’s meaning. Persuaded that creative listening is an aspect of listening processes relatively neglected by research, the intent is to uncover cognitive phenomena, particularly imagination, that can be readily identified intrapersonally, but also inter-subjectively affirmed in listening situations. Both hypothetical and practical interests motivate this query; the reasoning is that theory corrects poor practice as Lewin observed, “there is nothing more practical than a good theory.” Yet, in order to make heads or tails of this it’s been necessary to first return to questions about ‘creativity’ itself, and its various expressions in or through imagination.
In the past I’ve contrasted creative listening with mimesis or imitation https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/mimesis ; mimesis refers to what some call ‘reproductive’ listening, which concerns replicating the meaning of a speaker. The latter has been the aim of most instruction to improve listening ability by concentrating on and receiving a speaker’s message, and reproducing it as near as possible in likeness to that intended by its ‘sender.’ The idea is for the listener to strive to interpret, in other words to ‘assign meaning’ that replicates, or achieves ‘fidelity’ with that of the speaker’s original message.
Barriers to the likelihood of this happening have been studied extensively, including questions of shared interests and common experiences of the interlocutors, compatibility of vocabularies, emotional triggers, social and cultural differences, context of the interaction, and varied purposes for listening, i.e., whether one intends to acquire and critically evaluate information; undertaken for therapeutic ends; to understand or comprehend; and or simply for appreciation such as music or storytelling. Our listening posture we might conclude, given specific purposes, is an amalgam of factors that constitute a disposition we bring to bear on the listening event in question.
The listening event is, however, more accurately a situation in which one is desiring to share or to be listened to, or desiring and attempting to listen to another. Any listening event, assuming the participants are willing and inclined, may also be pared down to bare moments, “instants,” that can best be described as incipient and or inchoate, an initial stage of development of co-created meaning. This intimates humans are not only mimetic creatures; we are also inventors, creators.
And while it is clear that this prospective moment, (Bachelard suggestively refers to “a bare inaugural moment”), is only a dawning possibility of shared meanings, the situation is also a dynamic confluence of backgrounds and intentions: “We are always already immersed in a ‘situation’ that is constituted as a situation on an emotional register,” Smith writes, citing Merleau-Ponty,
“‘we are living in and through a growing, changing situation that opens up toward new possibilities and that is transformed as it develops. That is the way human meaning works, and none of this happens without our bodies, or without our embodied interactions within environments that we inhabit and that change along with us.’ Our action is always enaction-part of a dance of embodiment and our environment, a mode of interaction that is governed and propelled as much as (or more!) by our emotional appraisal of our situation as by our rational reflection on it. And that emotional appraisal is characterized by an irreducibility such that ‘we should not think that our embodied meaning, understanding, and reasoning could ever be adequately thought or grasped by our concepts, symbols, rules or patterns. Our situations, with all their summing up, implying, and carrying forward, are embodied situations‘” (Smith p 38).
In fact we are creatures, adapting bodily through creative and imitative means; perhaps we can now see that an integrative approach to listening is inescapable. Creative listening insists on enlisting listeners’ imagination, a movement in the moment that may be understood as integrating listening. Indeed being in the moment is the situation of listeners integrating past experience, present awareness and future aspirations. A poetic imagination aids in listening both intrapersonally and interpersonally. Observe how Wordsworth integrates listening, corporal sensation and affection, with imagination in his poetic reflection on restoration of the deep dimensions of the soul. Be assured this level of meditative creativity entails hours of practice, a subject to which we will soon return.
"These beauteous forms, Through a long absence, have not been to me As is a landscape to a blind man's eye: But oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din Of towns and cities, I have owed to them, In hours of weariness, sensation sweet, Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart; And passing even into my purer mind With restoration:-feelings too Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps, As have no slight or trivial influence On that best portion of a good man's life, His little, nameless, unremembered, acts Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust, To them I may have owed another gift, Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood, In which the burthen of the mystery, In which the heavy and the weary weight Of all this unintelligible world, Is lightened:-that serene and blessed mood, In which the affections gently lead us on,- Until, the breath of this corporeal frame And even the motion of our human blood Almost suspended, we are laid asleep In body, and become a living soul: While with an eye made quiet by the power Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, We see into the life of things." "Lines Composed a Few Mile above Tintern Alley" William Wordsworth (1797)
I will not see another’s world without the attentive integrating of my own images with those of another, a manifest choice activated by the desire and willingness to listen. Again this is not a once-for-all-time, easily activated measure as Bachelard admits:
. . . since attention has both the need and the power to recapture itself, it is in essence to be found entirely in its resumptions. Attention is also a series of beginnings; it is constituted by those mental rebirths that occur in consciousness when it heeds time’s instants. And if we carried our examination deeper into that narrow region where attention becomes decision, we would begin to appreciate the lightning quality of a will in which clarity of motive and the joy of acting suddenly converge. Such conditions are strictly preliminary, or better yet preinitial, for they precede what geometricians call the initial conditions of movement. This is indeed what renders them metaphysically, not abstractly, instantaneous. (Bachelard 2013 p 20-21 italics added).
Given the conditions proposed above, I observe, from phenomenological perspective, that listening is an eventful collision and collusion of imaginations, inventive collaboration, resourcing and integrating vital images rich in metaphorical potency. Not only is meaning invented, the persons involved are invented and reinvented; isn’t it so that communication theorists have long posited as much with respect to the act of speaking? Perhaps listening was overlooked or undervalued in constructivists’ considerations. Certainly imagination has been; or at least the scope of imagination’s relevance is underrated: “What we conjecture where we don’t see anything, that rules the world” (Sloterdijk 1987, p 152).
“The imagination has some way of lighting up the truth that reason has not, and . . . its commandments, delivered when the body is still and silent, are the most binding we can ever know,” writes W. B. Yeats.
Imagine: a world without verbal sound. Notice the colon; it’s placed to emphasize that imagination is just such a world.
We increase our skill, knowledge, and ability to manipulate meaning in relation to those things to which we devote our attention. To the extent we deny our attention we abrogate and abolish our ability (to manipulate meaning). Poetry and narrative, require intense listening concentration; interpreting poetry and narrative help develop complex attention abilities; attention has received considerable investigation (Kahneman); likewise poetic and narrative form have also been rigorously examined (Boyd, Kermode, Steiner). Attentiveness (mindfulness?) or being in the moment is sterile without imagination; as Bachelard observes “An ear that is intent is trying to see” (Earth and Reveries of Repose: An Essay on Images of Interority). The integrating of imagination and moment by moment attention to another’s intimate expression is the realization of listening. To be sure, integrating listening, the mindfully conscious involvement of mimetic and inventive processes inherent in construal of our world and construction of meaning, must each be given due accord before we will know what it means to listen.
Observing the interstices and intervening images which manifest during listening and sense-making occurrences could undoubtedly give insight into productive and unproductive disruption phenomena. Finally, “Where we put our attention is an ethical question. Saying ‘yes’ to anything is automatically saying ‘no’ to a whole bunch of things” (Sommers, 2017). Even in the creative “intuition of an instant” there exists a rupture of attention, veritable distraction, in which a measurable difference between deep seated devotion and insurmountable indifference can be witnessed. While we are perhaps rhetorically savvy in regard to the ethics of speaking, (at the very least questions of ethics are frequently studied and ethos debated), we are, however, still unsure what listening ethics is let alone matters of intention or intentionality. Responsible attention may be presumed to be (and is, often unwittingly) a starting point for such an ethics (of listening). Most of us would agree with this when we feel ignored or experience the distractions of listeners, which behaviors do frequently prevail. Significantly, the questions ‘What constitutes and wherein lie the ethics in listening’? are directly tied to the question, ‘What is listening’? (and the assumptions on which we base our answers). “So, you won’t be able to name the ethics [respective to listening] until you can say what listening is” (Sommers, 2017).