The Speaker as a Listener

On October 14, 2012 by admin

Prasanta Chakravarty

I remember a bearded, unkempt middle aged character, presumably not from the neighbourhood, who would be a permanent fixture at various seminars held within Jadavpur University, Kolkata, in the mid-nineties. Sometimes he would hop seamlessly from, say, a seminar on “Bengali Literature in South Indian Languages” to “Recent Developments in Neutrino Physics” in the smooth course of a single day. He would primarily be there for free food. And during the summer—for the air-conditioning.  The organizers knew about this guest but would indulge him anyway. He created no fuss. Would find for himself a cosy corner in one of the back-rows. And would sometimes even mildly doze off between sessions. I was then pleasantly surprised to see him one evening perorating quite knowledgeably on the shifting fortunes of the Annales school of history to a bunch of research students in one corner of an odd canteen.

As I was participating in and witnessing a recent seminar in Delhi, I remembered the face of that dilettante scholar gypsy. There were really some star speakers here, some delightful talks, some powerful questions raised and responded to and yes, some great food and entertainment sessions too! The whole seminar was meticulously and energetically organized: everything went off like clockwork. But I was looking, quite sentimentally perhaps, for the unkempt guy. That is to say, people who would be there for every single session and in the interstices too. Just be there and even doze off if necessary. But be there. I am primarily thinking about the speakers. Many were present for their own paper only or for one day at most. They were present. But what about their presence?

In seminars, we go to hold forth. Mostly. To convince others of our views. In the marketplace of ideas, what have we been worrying about lately—that we try to convey and if possible convert by our powerful argumentative and rhetorical skills. That job once conducted, we tend to move on. So, one gets to hear often in human science circles: how come gender was covered, but not caste? Or some variation. Cover ideas! Very ambitious and taxonomic. But what about another kind of contract that we make with the organisers and our fellow spirits in the world of thought—a convivial contract of listening to other ideas? The very word seminar—from seminarium, semen (seed) would refer to a breeding ground, a nursery. Breeding cannot happen alone. We need to partake of that process.

There is a texture to each seminar, one which gives it a shape and character. To begin with, there is a vertical axis.  It pertains to the slowing down of ideas and the maturing of collective thought within the confines of the hall. As one listens to the first few speakers one gets the basics clear. This is, as a friends says, the 101 aspect of the larger subject at hand. The issues get gradually disentangled. Ideas begin to waft and float around—coagulating here and there in the hall. A semantic form of listening begins. Trends begin to emerge. By the middle of the day, those ideas, the initial ones, have made their way to the dining lounge. We bring our own thoughts, mix and match and wonder how individual unit ideas would travel during the rest of the day. Some happily recount personal tales about other such seminars, convictions and idiosyncrasies of the speakers and try to match their own perceptions and convictions with the currents and cross-currents of ideas. It is not that I am giving a directional shape to the texture of a seminar, but trying to think ,rather, about how ideas gradually build up. This building up takes a more concrete form as we traverse through time. We now get into listening proper, beyond the semantic. This is paradoxically a reduced form of listening. The partakers quickly realize that there is a shuttling between sound’s actual content, it source and its meaning. The language, the techniques of language, the arguments that we so habitually use, suddenly begins to reveal themselves—in unexpected turns and twists. We gradually see the subtle undertones, feel the ‘laughing off’ of a project or sense the circulation of trivial or harebrained ideas. Why was the word ‘reform’ used fleetingly in this way instead of that, we may wonder? Why does a left leaning intellectual frame her arguments around ‘status’ and ‘nation’—and not critique them either, we speculate?

What I am getting at is a certain entrenchment via retreat that leads to a kind of subjective relativism in convivial partakings. Every listener hears something different and the sounds, the twitching of the muscles around us and the sighs and smirks perceived: those that scaffold the ideas, get denser and subtler, ever growing. The nature of the claps after each talk tells a story, too. They shine. We take in the spirit. Submerge ourselves. As Anaximenes who, wondering about ‘air’ thought, “As our souls being air, hold us together, so breath and air embrace the whole cosmos in small meetings.” Perception, in small meetings at such breeding grounds, is never purely an individual phenomenon. It partakes in a particular act of sociology—that of shared perceptions. Reduced listening is a phenomenon. Only a sustained form of listening can take us to this objectivity born of inter-subjectivity. For this to happen, each pin drop must be listened to—with utmost care. This is the contract that each speaker implicitly, ideally, makes—with and in a seminar—which they agree to join in.

But there is also a material and lateral aspect of the kind of cross-pollination that might happen in a seminar. We go to seminars for selfish reasons—to serendipitously discover titles of books, lines of arguments that startle us and remain with us for years to come, meet new people and hear their deepest beliefs and benefit from them—pure and simple. That self-regarding purpose too gets defeated if we decide to fleetfoot in and out of the arena. Word is soundful and sound is meaningful. The meanings are useful to us. If we arrive just to ‘show up’ at seminars, we do not grow ourselves. We miss an opportunity to grab possibilities. Instead, we carry our hobby-horses from seminar to seminar: seminaring and not being in seminars. If we listen with care, it is possible to come out quite transformed. The act of sustained listening (occasional mental fatigue notwithstanding) is deeply important to have a feeling of, if I may be allowed to use that utterly practical phrase —‘take away.’ Here a discovery, there a confirmation of a speculation initiates and inaugurates new views of things. A mini-world appears before us whose existence had been always suspected but never experienced in such richness. Listening, and just being there, extends our vision in material terms. Someday we will use these thoughts in some different context.

And it is here that we go beyond the four walls of the seminar hall to the wider world. For ideas are nothing in themselves unless tested through practice or craft or events and are turned back into ideas again. The more we partake in listening within the narrow ambit of a single conference the more we are simultaneously and laterally savouring varied exchanges of thoughts that are continuously happening around the world—in space. By listening we actually work within a larger cooperative communion but in the process work for our own individual ends too. We are taking it to the outside world by a larger form of cross-pollination—that happens through the course of the seminar. The convivial spirit spills over. This can only happen by staying the course. By trying to assimilate more and more. Nor is the spilling over just happening synchronically in space. Perhaps we also talk to a future, yet unarrived time, by being attentive to the other partakers in a project. By relating the present subject at hand—with ideas that took shape and gave shape to the past, with our own time. We may both implode and explode time in seminars—it is possible. Ideas travel back and forth and may occasionally command a tiger’s leap into the past and then another jump to the future—as Benjamin saw the continuum of history. These miracles might happen only if we remain invested and intense listeners. And we may change our own futurity by thus consuming meals made of ideas.

The vertical depth of the convivial spirit and the lateral growing of the individual within such an ambit are two intertwining coordinates that fluctuate in the course of triggering and breeding a seminar. That is the lot of each discrete seminar. It is the level and manner of the fluctuation that may often determine the fabulous idea of what constitutes a successful seminar.

We could join the next one for our few minutes of glory, for empathetic support for a cause or a speaker. Or we could be there to listen, delight in and devour a feast of the mind, in which, even depleted of all resources and energies by its end, one could say, as with Babette, “An artist is never poor.”


Prasanta Chakravarty teaches English at the University of Delhi.

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