Listening on All Sides: Toward an Emersonian Ethics of Reading

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Listening on All Sides: Toward an Emersonian Ethics of Reading by Richard Deming. Stanford U. Press, 2007. Pp. 182. $50.

At the same time that we moderns learned about living in regimes of vision that include spectacle (Guy Debord, Laura Mulvey), panopticon (Foucault), and print (Walter Ong), our literary criticism skewed towards vision at the expense of the other senses, especially hearing. Think of the close reading that runs from the New Criticism to deconstruction and beyond, or what Charles Bernstein calls the "Euclidean" prosody of most modern poetics (Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word [Oxford U. Press, 1998]). Ironically, we still see evidence for this hearing loss in recent literary criticism such as Richard Deming's Listening on All Sides: Toward an Emersonian Ethics of Reading, which, like Helen Vendler's Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery (Princeton U. Press, 2005), paradoxically inscribes a regime of vision into its very title. For her part, Vendler regularly reduces listeners to readers through an aggressive form of synesthesia common in our critical moment when readerly interpretation, engagement, and understanding are usually figured visually. For instance her architecture for the eye situates the lyric poem's addressee "in the room" or out, rather than maintaining a distinctly aural orientation characteristic of the material she examines, including most obviously George Herbert's devotional lyric ("Heaven / O who will show me those delights on high? / Echo. / I") or Walt Whitman's bardic persona ("O you singer solitary, singing by yourself, projecting me, / O solitary me listening, nevermore shall I cease perpetuating you"). Despite the recent emergence of sound studies in the literary humanities by way of Bruce Smith and Charles Bernstein, among others, the ear is regularly collapsed into more sophisticated epistemologies and practices of the eye despite all efforts to the contrary.

In fits and starts, Richard Deming's book advances a project of sensual reorientation in the spirit of Stanley Cavell's ordinary language philosophy, and his achievements are noteworthy in a few directions, including a sophisticated intertextuality, a knack for aphorisms, and most importantly a contribution to literary ethics where the ear can play a central role.

Articulating "Emersonian modernism," Deming thoughtfully sets Hawthorne, Melville, Wallace Stevens, Whitman, and William Carlos Williams in conversation with Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, among others, marking where a European sense for historical consciousness informs, and is informed by, a distinctly American project of skepticism and innovation. Sometimes these connections follow the traditional contours of influence as when Emerson reads Hegel and in turn Nietzsche reads Emerson, and sometimes the connections expand to inform Deming's own efforts "to find and even make new vocabularies new tools ... in order to find new ways to address and respond to (and thus be responsible for) the world" (26). More than an informative interpretation of canonic literature, Deming positions his book as an act of literature itself. Unnecessary complications follow, such as the effort to fold in too much material without adequate room left for argument or explanation--the stuff of mere information, I suppose--as with the sequence of two pages that lurch inexplicably from Wittgenstein to Wordsworth to Shelley to Blake to Williams at the same time that Deming generates aphorisms that crystallize his thought and complicate his relationship to his myriad interlocutors. Who says "interrogatives are one manner of delineating the gaps between groups of language users" (25)? I love this aphorism, which resonates with the insight of Cavell's explanation in A Pitch of Philosophy: Autobiographical Exercises (Harvard U. Press, 1994) that J. L. Austin's stories required an "ear" in the most technical sense. Deming in fact thematizes the ambiguity of the speaking agent and thus this question of attribution might seem unfair. …