Archive by Author | Emmanuelle Sonntag

From “listening” to “filling in”: where “La Soeur Écoute” Teaches Us to Listen

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DH Listening

Editor’s Note: Welcome to the second installment in the “DH and Listening” blog series for World Listening Month, our annual forum that prompts readers to reflect on what it means to listen. This year’s forum considers the role of “listening” in the digital humanities (DH, for short). We at Sounding Out! are stoked to hear about (and listen to) all the new projects out there that archive sound, but we wonder whether the digital humanities engage enough with the the notion of listening. After all, what’s a sound without someone to listen to it?

Next week Fabiola Hanna will be reflecting upon what DH means when it talks about participatory practices. Jacqueline Wernimont from the Vibrant Lives team shared with us last week about the ethics of listening to 20th century sterilization victims’ records. Today, Emmanuelle Sonntag introduces us to a figure from a long time ago, “la soeur écoute,” a nun whose was responsible for sitting in and listening when another nun had a visitor. As she reflects on this nun’s job, she senses her notion of listening (especially in the context of the digital) change.

Sit down, fade into the background, and listen closely. Mother Superior will want all the details.–Liana Silva, Managing Editor

Who is she?

At the beginning of my doctoral research on listening, while I looked in French dictionaries for the word “écoute” I came upon, almost systematically, the expression “soeur écoute.” For example, this dictionary says “soeur écoute” is a nun who, in a monastery, accompanies in the parlor room another nun who gets visited.

This is how I met this cloistered nun called “la soeur écoute” (literally, “the sister listening”, or “sister listen”, if a literal translation has any sense here). The term is “vieilli” (outdated), as written in the dictionaries, but strangely, they insist on mentioning her again and again, even in 2016 editions. She is a listener, just as you would say, “I’m a librarian”. However I prefer to say “she is listener”, without the “a”, even if it is not proper English. In French, elle est écoute, and believe me, this resonates amazingly. To me, the “soeur écoute” is a fascinating woman because her activity has ceased to exist in monasteries, allowing me to imagine her experience, behavior, life and occupation as a cloistered nun.

Here she is at work. A visitor is knocking on the monastery’s door  — can you hear it? The “soeur écoute” welcomes the visitor and leads him/her through the place until they reach the parlor. The room is divided in two spaces by a metal or wooden grille, the sacred one and the secular one. The “soeur écoute” has the visitor sitting in front of the grille, on the secular side of the room. On the other side, the nun who is being visited is already sitting, waiting for the “soeur écoute” to pull aside the curtain that hides the grille. The “soeur écoute” then sits next to the visited nun, slightly in the background. During the conversation, she neither speaks nor moves nor takes any notes. She just listens. When the session is finished, she closes the curtain and leads the visitor to the exit. Later, she promptly reports what she heard to the mother abbess.

The word “écoute” has three moments in its evolution over time (of course with some overlapping). In order: someone, somewhere, something. “Someone” refers to the 12th century (“écoute,” as a person, is attested in France at the beginning of this century), and “somewhere” to the 15th (meaning the place from where you listen). Then, listening considered as “something” (the “thing” you must have to be able to hear attentively) goes back the 19th. In our common comprehension of what listening is, we are now entirely in the “something” part, with no overlapping at all. For my research, the minute I started to look at my “object” as a “person,” my thinking shifted. The “soeur écoute” rung a bell: we are in the “something” timeframe of the notion of listening, and this could blind us in our comprehension of what listening in 2016 really is.

Listening Behind Bars

Firstly, the “soeur écoute” is also called, in some sources, “auscultatrice.” For example, I found a mention (with a missing “t”) of such nuns in a primary source of 1705 concerning the Ursulines de la Congrégration de Paris. The document tells neither how the “auscultatrice” should behave, nor the technical rules to apply, such as the distance between the grille and the visited nun, or the distance between the “auscultatrice” and the visited nun. But it does indicate how the visited nun should behave with her. In the section called “De la manière dont les Religieuses se doivent comporter au Parloir” (How nuns must behave in the parlor), we read:

Règlemens des religieuses Ursulines, 1705, p. 95.

“They will be humble and reserved in their behavior. They will avoid inappropriate gestures, as well as the distraction of sight, bursts of laughing, speaking loudly or impetuously, although they always are expected to speak in an intelligible way, so that the auscultatrice can hear them” (my translation).

The term “auscultatrice” is reminiscent of the very roots of the word “écoute,” the Latin auscultare, a combination of “(…)auris, a word that gives the first part of the verb auscultare,” and “a tension, an intention and an attention, which the second part of the term marks’, as the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy explains.

In the case of the Ursulines, it is a paradox, as the word “écoute” had been used since the 12th century, and the expression “soeur écoute” commonly used since the end of the Middle Ages. I suspect a marketing reason here: “auscultatrice” sounds much more strict and in-depth than “soeur écoute,” providing the idea of a pure and original listening, if not conservative.

Second, the “soeur écoute” is part-time. A primary source dating of 1628, in a 1876 book, mentions 25 nuns interviewed about their occupations inside the Sainte-Praxède monastery. Seven among them claim to be or to have been “auscultatrice” (p. 52–54, 193, 198, 212, 234). All of them double it up with another job, such as nurse or organist. Some of them also claim being “auscultatrice de la porte” (auscultatrice of the door) or “auscultatrice du parloir” (auscultatrice in the parlor). The grille, the door and her body (when she strides along the monastery), are her work instruments, her listening prostheses.

Third, the “soeur écoute” appears to have amazing skills. In the Dictionnaire françois, by Pierre Richelet (1680), she is called “tierce”, meaning she is the third element in the triangle of the setting in the parlor, hence, a mediation :

Dictionnaire françois, 1680, p. 448

Also, the plural “ÉCOUTES“ (written in capital, as to demonstrate a precedence on the singular form) : “this word is used to designate people placed to listen and to discover what is happening” (my translation).

Dictionnaire françois, 1680, p. 265

She indeed has an ability to discover what is happening, by watching, observing, monitoring, keeping an eye, but also by aggregating the data she is collecting.

The parlor in motion

As I was writing a few pages devoted to the “soeur écoute” for my dissertation, I stumbled upon an oral history documentary,funded by the Illinois Humanities Council, called Chosen (Custody of the Eyes). As Abbie Reese describes on her website, it is “a collaborative documentary film  — a portrait made with and about a young woman transitioning into a cloistered religious community that follows an ancient rule.” Reese explains:

The severity of their lives is striking. During the four visits permitted each year, the nuns and their loved ones are separated by a metal grille and are not supposed to reach through the bars to touch one another.

Today, this order, as others, uses “extern sisters” to provide the link with the outside world.

Intrigued by this grille, reminiscence of the “soeur écoute,” I watched the 8-minute demo and was stricken by two moments. The first one, at 2:20, shows Abbie Reese in the parlor, with a computer, in front of the metal grille. Behind it, one of the cloistered nuns reaches the computer through the bars in order to plug in a cable. At 07:55, this time from the point of view of the Poor Clare nuns, we see the parlor with the grille covered by a green curtain. A nun walks in, pulls aside the curtain. Then, at 08:02, from the secular side again, a nun closes the curtain while saying : “you can turn it off!”.

What did we just witness? A cloistered contemplative nun reached through a metal grille to transfer some video files into a computer. It is here, around this gesture, that I see digital humanities coming into the picture along with listening. Of course I’m not building a case on the cable itself, or on the video files. It is the gesture more than anything else that draws my attention: the exact moment where the nun reaches the computer through the bars.

A surveilled sequence of events

As it comes from the outside world, by definition a visit to the monastery disturbs the extremely scheduled sequence of events and rules giving rythm to the monastery’s life. From this point of view, the “soeur écoute” is the only one, in the enclosure of the monastery, in power of keeping watch (“épier”) on what is around her. In All Ears: The Aesthetics of Espionage (English edition to be released in December 2016), Peter Szendy evokes the “écoute” (as a person) as the one whose job is to practice an auditive surveillance (“celui ou celle qui pratique la surveillance auditive”). Yet here, with this listening nun, we are reaching a listening that is much more than aural.

What does she do as a job? Surveillance? Espionage?  I would rather say that her listening is a lookout (“affût”), a sentinel (“sentinelle”) as well as a watch (“guet”) — I have to say here the English language lacks in qualifying precisely those notions. In this regard, Kate Lacey’s explorations around “listening in”, “listening out” and “mediated listening” is, to my understanding, an indication of the difficulty to define “the act of listening.” However, there is another aspect in which the “soeur écoute” appears as unbeatable : her ability to report. I suppose the relevance of the report depended on the visitor, so the nun had to decide whether or not to report to the abbess.

In French, there is a word to designate those who report: “rapporteur/rapporteuse.” When I was a kid, in a French school somewhere in France, being a “rapporteuse” was an insult. As I’m writing this, I suddenly remember the litany that was sung through the school’s playground against the poor one who was accused (I use the feminine here in order to relate with the nun, but it could be a boy of course). It was always “delivered” with the same few music notes and tone, by three, four, five kids, arm in arm, sweeping the playground with this human singing barrier of accusation:

Elle est une rapporteuse ♪ ♫ ♬ Elle est une rapporteuse ♪ ♫ ♬ Elle est une rapporteuse ♪ ♫ ♬ — (She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬)

All this to say that the “soeur écoute” reminds us that listening is linked to the act of reporting. In Listen: A History of Our Ears, Peter Szendy underlines listening as being not at all benevolent, the kindly meaning being a very late one in the long evolution of the notion. Quite the contrary, argues the French philosopher and musicologist, listening holds a great amount of perversity. When observing the “soeur écoute”, this is what we see: a woman whose listening is not kind.

She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬

Reaching through the bars of the grille

Let us revisit the video at 02:20: observing, again and again, the gesture of the nun with the camera cable. Her body and the grille. Her face and attitude. What she says. How she tries to plug the cable. Her hands and arms. Her fingers. Her way to deal with the grille. The nun is in movement between (and with) those technological objects, digitally ensuring the mediation between both worlds. In Listen, Szendy argues (in an ironic passage of the book, hence difficult to quote) that listening is “a matter of touching.” He stands up for “listening with our fingertips” (in the French edition, slightly different: “l’écoute au bout des doigts”). While doing so, Szendy plays wonderfully with the word “digital.” In French it has two meanings : “digital” refers to the fingers, but also to the digital, like the one of the digital technologies (although more often translated as “numérique”). The “digital” intervention of “sister listener” then takes a new dimension, between fingers and technology.

She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ She is a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬

In All Ears, Szendy highlights listening as a kind of intelligence activity, “activité de renseignement” in French. Yet, “renseignement” also means filling in a metadata, or, if you prefer, a field that describes a digital object. Like the nun trying to plug in the cable. The “soeur écoute” then appears as a figure of a “filling in” processes and practices : while listening, she also informs, and in-forms.

The grille and the grid

I just read the fascinating story around a visit in a cloistered monastery close to my home in Montréal. Again a grille. Again a green curtain. This time though, the nuns reach easily through the bars, shaking hands. Nuns have the internet. They know how to catch the rumor of the world, if they wish to.

My partner told me recently: “it seems you are building a case on someone whose job does not exist anymore to reflect on something very contemporary, the digital.” Yes, it is exactly that. This is what is so liberating with the “soeur écoute.” And no, it is not exactly that, my dear: I’m not sure she does not exist anymore. What if a little bit of a “soeur écoute” would be in all of us? In other other words, what if the way she listens would inform how we listen today, making the connection between listening as person (the “someone”), listening as place (the “somewhere”), and listening as object (the “something”)?

I see the “soeur écoute” as a reading grid, or framework, which forces to rethink listening and its role. Reaching through the bars, she helps expand the study of listening beyond its sonorous contours. She encourages to consider listening in order to include the non-sonorous aspects of “keeping watch” and “sentineling”. Going from one world to another, from one side to another, pulling aside curtains, she urges us, “researchers of listening”, being “tierce” and part-time in our methods and attitudes. Even if it has to go such as far as considering listening as a counterpoint to sound. After all this, maybe, starting to auscultate the relationship between listening and digital humanities.

I have to go. I have put Listening under custody. I have a cable to plug, and a report to write.

I am a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ I am a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬ I am a tattletale ♪ ♫ ♬

Featured image: FreeImages.com/Michael P***

Emmanuelle Sonntag defines herself as a “knowledge organizer.” She offers consultancy services in communication, education, curriculum design, information management and knowledge mobilization while pursuing her PhD in Sociology on… Listening at Université du Québec à Montréal. She tweets on listening, sounds, stories and other noises @lvrdg.

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Deejaying her Listening: Learning through Life Stories of Human Rights Violations

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Sound and Pedagogy 3**Co-authored by Emmanuelle Sonntag and Bronwen Low

Are you listening?

Because sound specialist Julian Treasure argues, “We are losing our listening” due to the invention of multiple methods of recording and with the world being “so noisy . . . with this cacophony going on visually and auditorily, it’s just hard to listen, it’s tiring to listen.”  In response, Treasure claims that we need to improve our conscious listening skills; he suggests teaching the skill of listening in school.

As co-directors of the “Education and Life Stories” working group of a large oral history project, we have been thinking a good deal about listening and pedagogy. The project is entitled  “Life Stories of Montrealers Displaced by War, Genocide, and other Human Rights Violations,” shortened here as “Montreal Life Stories project.” From 2007 to 2012, a team of university and community-based researchers in the frame of the Canadian Community-University Research Alliances (CURA) Program recorded life story interviews with approximately 500 Montrealers who experienced mass violence and displacement. Members of the survivor communities (Tutsi, Haitian, Cambodian, and Holocaust) were key partners in both the research and the diffusion of the project, fundamentally shaping the project’s philosophy, activities and outcomes.

One of the Education Working Group’s principle accomplishments was developing an educational package called We Are Here, containing five Learning and Evaluation Situations (LES), the curricular units in the Quebec Education Program. The units are designed for “cycle two” secondary school, where the students are generally 14 to 16 years old. As of yet, these have not yet been piloted, but we plan to do so.

we are hereOur goal while designing “We Are Here” was to have teachers and students engage with the life stories of human rights violations, in order to foster a more inclusive cultural memory that would develop “le vivre-ensemble,” our capacity to live well together.  Featuring the stories of immigrants and refugees to the province, the curriculum offers students a more complex understanding of human rights violations. First-person accounts bring world history and politics to life, helping us to understand the processes and human costs of violence and war, and expand our awareness of our fellow residents and citizens. At the same time, we recognized that the difficult stories of human rights violations make particular demands upon their listeners. We needed to consider how to ethically support students and teachers in engaging with the stories of people who have survived traumatic experience—while, importantly, respecting the interviewees themselves.

We sensed from the beginning that these goals and commitments would require us to develop our own “pedagogy of listening” to support teaching and learning from the life stories, and we foregrounded listening in all of the materials. For instance, each unit begins with the students listening to one or more project interviews, in the form of digital stories edited collaboratively by the interviewees and the editor. These digital stories tend to be under 10 minutes and bring together video, images, sound, and text (see for example, Bracha Rosenblum’s digital story). They are much more accessible than the original video interviews, which can be many hours long.

There is an irony in building a case for listening in schools. Students are commanded daily to “be quiet and listen to the teacher.” Despite the long history in educational theory of critiquing this model, the student-who-listens-in-silence versus the teacher-who-speaks-loudly is still regularly invoked in practice as an ideal relation. The demand for silence is in part a pragmatic response to the inherent noisiness of schools filled with people. At the same time, the listening imperative is also a key tool in the establishment of teacher authority and power.

Image by Flickr User I Am Rudy

Image by Flickr User I Am Rudy

We wanted to rethink the process of listening in our curricular design beyond these traditional power dynamics. Our pedagogy of listening draws on concepts of testimony, communities of memory, dialogue, and the principle of shared authority in oral history, which we describe in detail elsewhere (forthcoming in the Journal of Curriculum Studies). In this blog post, we explore our pedagogy’s indebtedness to philosopher and musicologist Peter Szendy’s work on listening and its potential in the public school classroom.

Listening begins with the desire to be signed and addressed

The address is a central notion in Peter Szendy’s Listen: A History of Our Ears. The early 2000s, as Szendy explains, saw the birth of the peer-to-peer file sharing service Napster (created by Shawn Fanning in 1999), where listeners exchanged and circulated music. Through the lens of file sharing, Szendy began reflecting on the rights of listeners and the nature of musical listening more generally. He argues that sharing shapes the listening act: while listening can be passive–I am listening to you, receiving what you are saying–we also offer up what we are listening to. Rather than envisioning listening as a two-way engagement, Szendy triangulates it, structuring listening around a listening subject, the sonorous object the subject is listening to, and the addressee (le destinataire) of the subject’s listening. In Szendy’s theory of address, as we listen to somebody or something, we also address our listening to an “other” (who might be another beside me, or in myself).

That students would address and engage with “an other” through their listening appeased, in part, our concerns about having students listen to difficult stories of mass violence. If listening is akin to a peer-to-peer sharing system, students were somehow not “alone” anymore in the experience; listening is a building of relation.

Closely related to the concept of listening as address is Szendy’s idea of signature, especially through the digitalization of sound where “listeners become authors” (136) naming, tagging, and classifying the files that they share with others.  Szendy describes this process in terms of the singularity of listening:

It is more simply as a listener that I want to sign my listening: I would like to point out, to identify, and to share such-and-such sonorous event that no one besides me, I am certain of it, has ever heard as I have (3).

While all listening necessarily involves an appropriation of what has been listened to, we wanted to amplify the process of students “signing” or marking their listening, and so making it their own. We would deepen students’ engagement with the video interview and the “other” by having them actively edit, rework, even remix, and so adapt the original. We gave students the right to enter into the difficult stories from the survivors interviewed in the Montreal Life Stories project, responding as individuals and as members of a classroom community.  While the dynamic of students listening to and making something in response to the life stories takes many forms in our curricular units (including timelines, maps, and audio-tours), we here share the unit which most explicitly embodies the remixing in Szendy’s notion of listening.

What a Story!

What a story!: Life stories and digital storytelling, is designed for senior students in the  English Language Arts, and asks students to work in groups to create their own digital story version of a segment from one of the life story interviews.

In the preparation phase, the students listen to a 5 minute digital story of a Holocaust survivor living in Montreal that enables them to discover the multimedia elements and narrative structure of a digital story.

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In the production phase, students approach their main task: producing a 5 minute digital story from a 34 minute life story interview with another Holocaust survivor. The phase begins with “deep listening” exercises where students work in groups to summarize the story and decide which parts of the larger interview they would like to keep in their edited versions. In doing this, they reflect on their experience as “listener“ vs. ”reader” and their responsibilities as listeners of difficult stories.

While the expression “deep listening” recalls the work of the composer Pauline Oliveros, in the Montreal Life Stories project the concept stems more directly from the notion of  “shared authority,” a phrase coined by oral historian Michael Frisch (1990) to describe the process of co-creating an interview. The community-university model was collaborative at all levels, and researchers and the researched were partners in dialogue. In turn, we frequently used “deep listening” (as in the profound listening between interviewers and interviewees) as an expression during our working sessions. The concept also draws on the work of oral historian Martha Norkunas on interview techniques and deep listening exercices; her visit to the project shaped our curriculum design process, and students are encouraged to engage in dialogue and sharing, and to “Listen with close attention and deeply, in an empathetic and respectful manner.“(13). These appeared, to our eyes, to be consistent with Szendy’s notion of listening as address and signature.

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The production phase continues with the creation of the digital story, the editing and the montage. Students then reflect on the ethics of the process of cutting and reworking another’s story, exploring the way narratives can be modified, the meaning built into the digital story vs. the meaning of the interview, and the question of narrative form.

Peter Szendy chooses the deejay, or of the musical arranger, as a figure for the contemporary listener. Indeed, we imagined the students in groups, headphones on, in front of computers, slowing down the cadence, augmenting the sound, rewinding or fast-forwarding, cutting, pasting, annotating. We thought of them as highly skilled listeners, intervening in what they were listening to and interpreting their listening for the “other” (  in the manner of composition theory in which students are asked to write for real audiences for real purposes). As deejays of their listening!

Having students edit the life stories of others, especially stories of violence and war, brings with it risks of misinterpretation and manipulation. However, the unit asks students to think carefully about these risks, and unlike projects which use testimonies in the service of someone else’s argument, this editing assignment has students select from the larger interview in order to craft a narrative that respects the original. As Norkunas says, “When Michael Frisch coined his now famous phrase, “a shared authority,” he wrote of the shared responsibility of listener and narrator for creating the interview document, for interpreting it and for sharing the knowledge created.”(2) If editing and interpreting are critical to the process, adds Norkunas, “the first moment of creation takes place in the interview, in the act of listening.” Hence, the ethical issues raised by the editing assignment–and more generally by having students and teachers engage with personal stories of human rights violation–are addressed by considerable attention to the act of listening (13), and by the cultivation of trust, dialogue and sharing. In short, an attention to the “other.”

Rather than deciding that this content is too challenging for students or reproducing a passive listening dynamic in which students listen to the interviews in reverential silence, we work to support student engagement — as both an attention and response — with these stories as part of a community of listeners. And while listening to these stories can be difficult work, we hope that through our pedagogy of listening, students will gain a greater awareness of the lives of those Quebecois who are not often part of the national narrative, and grapple with some of the difficult knowledge of human pain and survival.

Bronwen Low is an Associate Professor in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education at McGill University. She researches the implications of popular culture for education, curriculum theory, and adolescent (multi)literacy practices. Areas of interest include hip-hop and spoken word culture; informal, arts-based and participatory education with youth; and community media and participatory video programs.

Emmanuelle Sonntag defines herself as a “knowledge organizer.” She offers consultancy services in communication, education, curriculum design, information management and knowledge mobilization while pursuing her PhD in Sociology on… Listening at Université du Québec à Montréal. She tweets on listening, sounds, stories and other noises @lvrdg.

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