Listening Out as a Technique of Political Life by Prof. Kate Lacey

By Kirsten Forkert on March 14th, 2021

 This is a guest blog post in connection with ‘Voice and Listening: Techniques for political ife”.

Kate Lacey, Professor of Media History & Theory, University of Sussex


In this presentation I want to explore some of the implications of framing political debates as a politics of voice, and in particular to argue that this hegemonic framing limits the radical possibilities of a politics of listening.


This is not an argument against a politics of voice, nor even against thinking voice and listening together. It is an attempt to think through a politics of listening that doesn’t begin with voice.


I am writing this entry on a day where the public conversation is dominated by the question of women’s safety on the streets in the wake of the abduction and apparent murder of Sarah Everard. Women are once again speaking up, and mobilising to ‘reclaim the streets’. Feminists are once again having to make the point that even framing this story as one about ‘women’s safety’ rather than about ‘men’s violence’ is part of the problem, particularly when the conversation turns to what women can do to protect themselves or how they should calm down and put their fears into statistical perspective.


It strikes me that the politics of voice more generally can fall into this trap of requiring marginalised or dispossessed groups to find solutions when we ask how to ‘give people a voice’ or how to ‘make ourselves heard’. Again, feminists have long critiqued how women have to learn to speak in certain ways to be heard in public spaces set up to recognise and validate certain forms of speech over others.


Techniques that centre on ‘giving people a voice’ or that focus on how to adapt modes of speech to a given situation to ‘make a voice heard’ can be important tactics, but are limited strategically in addressing this ‘crisis of voice’, because they are accommodations to a prevailing system where some voices resonate more than others.


Clearly one response has been to think about listening, particularly the responsibilities of people in power or positions of privilege to listen to the voices of others. Again, without diminishing the significance of this ambition, I suggest this position tends to remain rooted in that same politics of voice.


Firstly, the focus tends to be on listening to particular voices – listening in more closely, listening better. But listening remains a responsive activity, an activity produced by the voice, and an activity that then belongs to the voice in a way that can be observed, measured, commodified and exchanged (in the form of audience figures, for example).


Secondly, in situations like politicians’ listening events, voices speak in response to a question posed by ‘the listener’. In other words, the voice of the listener as speaker frames the discussion. Not only does this produce the context within which voices come to speak, it means voices will still only get listened to if they are answering the question posed and in a form that suits the listener’s purposes. This limitation is concealed in plain sight in that well-meaning phrase, ‘giving someone a voice’, which, from this point of view, actually suggests some kind of extenuated ventriloquist act.

I would like to argue, instead, for a politics of listening that does not come out of a politics of voice, but one that sits alongside it. At one level, this simply recognises that ‘to listen’ is both a transitive and an intransitive verb. It is possible to listen without listening to anything. Listening can therefore be a state of anticipation, that is, a listening out for something. There is a radical openness in this anticipatory moment that has surprisingly profound implications for reconfiguring a politics of voice if we think about this in terms of listening publics.

It would mean thinking in terms of there being a public listening out for voices, rather than (or alongside) thinking about voices trying to reach a public.

Rather than thinking of a listening public in the form of an audience, constituted by a particular voice or text, it would mean thinking about the critical potential that lies latent in the public. It would recognise the part played by listeners, both embodied and latent, in the production of the spaces and stimuluses by which voices come to speak.

It would mean that instead of conceiving critical listening as a kind of decoding or translation practice – a responsive practice – it would recognise the productive power of listening, and its political responsibilities.  A crucial role of listening out, for example, would be in enabling and auditing the diversity of voices in the public sphere.

But perhaps the most radical dimension of listening publics lies in its characteristic intersubjectivity and its resistance to commodification.

The privileging of voice in our constructions of democracy goes hand in hand with the idea of the liberty of the individual, and the valuing of expression as individual property. (Incidentally, the idea of voice as individual property obscures the process of listening to other voices by which one comes to have a voice of one’s own). Listening – specifically ‘listening out’ rather than ‘listening in’ – evades appropriation by inhabiting a space of plurality and collectivity.

It is in this sense I argue listening publics occupy a potentially radical political space in the face of any number of institutional, psychological and algorithmic mechanisms currently steering us away from this kind of political listening and fetishizing voice as the only marker of political participation. Listening out for voices that confront and jar as well as those that comfort and support is difficult and challenging, but is an essential technique of democratic political life.