Nancy attempts throughout his writings to cast various "philosophical" terms in a new light and to think them anew (such as self, sense, being, voice, and subject). In this work, "Listening," all of these terms are at play; for readers familiar with his other writings, this offering is a concise presentation of the key "strings" that guide his overall "project" (although, of course, it isn't a "project" as much as a constant offering and response). In this review, I'll offer my own sense of what's at work in this work. I hope that I can encourage more readers than I deter with my attempt.
It is important to note what is at stake for Nancy here (and this applies to the whole of Nancy's thinking and not just this book): "It is a question of going back from the phenomenological subject, an intentional line of sight, to a resonant subject, an intensive spacing of a rebound that does not end in any return to self without immediately relaunching, as an echo, a call to that same self" (21). As this indicates, the initial task of this book is to ask: why is sight such a predominant category in the history of thought and the history of thinking of the "self"? Why this predominance of the visual, the phenomenal, and the intentional? Even the phonologue "I" and "eye" seems suspicious. This regime of sight and visible phenomena extends far and wide indeed: the Visual as the (imaginary) capture of different "objects" given to sight in one visual field; the Mimesis at work in forms and the ideas they represent, signs that corresponds to things, figures, images, etc.; the Phenomena as the present presence or the presences in the present; the Manifest as that which is brought to light in presence; the Visible and Tactile as a constant field of sensation; and the Eye concerned with what is immediately displayed before it, demanding visual, manifest, present evidence (meaning, signification, representation, etc.). Contrasted to this is the ear and listening, whose correlates are as follows: the Sonorous as a (symbolic) referral between subjects and not fixed objects (as in a conversation or when listening to a piece of music); the Methexic in the sense of sharing, pauses and restarts between differing sonorities, contagion between tones, and participation without a fixed point of reference; the Evocative or Convocative as the summoning of presence to itself in the call, the cry, the howl, or the address (rather than a phenomenon enclosed in its manifestation, these immediately beg for response and originate as extensions); the Audible as a field sound and silence in alternation, where there is an "attack" involved and not a constant field (think of an unexpected car alarm); and the Ear characterized by withdrawal, turning inward, and doubling (the space of referrals, spreading, expansion, deferral, transfer, resounding, and finally of Resonance). It is perhaps easier to think in terms of the arts: whereas painting, architecture, and the plastic arts often offer us "one thing" to gaze upon, music only offers itself as an extension of itself in its changing melodies and harmonies, without ever coming to rest as "one thing." Of course, nothing is this simple. My condensed and rather awkward lists here do not draw out the subtleties as well as Nancy does (make sure to read the footnotes to catch them all); and it is CRUCIAL to emphasize that sight and sound, absolutely, TOUCH one another at all instances, just as all the senses touch and resonate with one another. Also, the subtleties between the arts is something of utmost concern to Nancy, and of course the resonances between them (see "The Muses"). The broader point, however, regards the way we go about thinking of sensibility itself; and likewise, whether we are to understand the self as a presence (as a fixed point, as one being in relation to the "other," as manifest, as a present-being, etc.) or as a presence-TO-self (as a vibration, a coming-and-going, neither "self" nor "other" but as relation itself, as a presence yet-to-come and always coming, as a being-without-present whose being is "itself" différant). It is this subtle shift in registers that draws us back from a phenomenological subject to a resonant subject, from manifest presence to an infinite summoning-to-presence, from the line of sight to the stretched and straining ear, from "making sense" to the opening of sense beyond "sense making," and from meaning/signification to meaning-to-say as a proffertory release without intention, will, or any vision of signification. This subtle shift engages a long heritage of French thought on the "phenomenological voice," and Nancy draws from them all: voice as the "alterity of what is said," the non-said or un-said in what is said (Lacan); voice as the originarity of a difference, identity amidst discrepancy; voice as supported in its faltering from the/its outside. But Nancy draws these resources toward a more original idea of resonance that isn't dependent on "difference," the "outside," or "alterity," per se. Rather, it is that the very "possibility of sense is identified with the possibility of resonance." This is the very opening up of the body upon which all sense, as resonance, is based, beginning with the cry of an infant at birth (though we have already been resonating in/to self for months before this birth even) and extending all the way to ones final breath (which, of course, continues to resonate in/to self even without us).
Having drawn these distinctions between Sight and Sound, it is important to note that it is NOT the case that Nancy is trying to "privilege" Sound over Sight (in fact, he warns against construing his argument in this way). It is rather this: Nancy is trying to point out that any sense in fact "resonates" with itself "in us." Sound simply gives us the clearest picture of what he is suggesting goes on with all the senses (all of which, of course, are constantly touching one another). He notes that "Sonority does not inhabit language in quite the same way as the other qualities." Think about a phrase like "listening to your body" when you feel like an illness is coming on and you decide not to go out; or when someone says something that is very profound and we say that they "struck a chord in us." Likewise, when someone impacts us unexpectedly or very deeply, we say that we really "resonate with them." Don't we always mean much more than simply understanding what they said, or liking the tonal quality of their voice, or agreeing with their point of view? It is always an experience of body and soul when we "resonate" in this way, for we feel as if they have touched upon a part of us that we wouldn't have known otherwise. It is in this direction that Nancy tries to think "resonance" as an analog of all "sense" beyond the certainty of understanding and intentions. In trying to think of the body as a resonance chamber (for which the "subject" is the vibratory "(non)-point"), I think that Nancy is trying to point out the sonorous vocabulary at work in all the senses, as when we have a "thumping heart," a "growling stomach," a "throbbing headache," or a "swelling sore." Just observing how this sonorous vocabulary finds its way into these expression indicates that Sonority is a distinct way of thinking about Sense itself. Though not "privileging" acoustics in any way, he does say that "Sense is first of all the rebound of sound, a rebound that is coextensive with the whole folding/unfolding of presence and of the present that makes or opens the perceptible as such," that "Sense reaches me long before it leaves me, even though it reaches me only by leaving in the same movement," and all of this because "Sense opens up in silence"-- as when we listen to our heart beating, which is more than just "hearing" a sound: our whole being is resonating there (30; 26).
To draw our attention to listening is not to draw it away from sight (he says in a note: "it is as if sonority were the intensification of seeing, a placing in tension of presence" (81)). It is rather that Nancy is trying to point beyond the logic of return-to-self and of the "metaphysical circle" that considers the "me" as the origin of self, as the intentional subject present-to-itself as some fixed point rooted in the manifest/visual. He tries to say (although there is no way to just "come out and say it") that the "origin" is this Resonance itself (and thus originally plural, though each instance of resonant is singular (as is every beat, note, strike, etc., in a piece of music)), that the origin is in this stretching at-tension of Listening, this vibration-between-ourselves, which is what really we "ARE" before we are "entities" or "identities"-- if we ever really are these presupposed entities at all, which Nancy's work writes "against"; but again, it wouldn't be a matter of asserting this "against" in a meaning or a signification, per se, but rather to offer it as that which we might listen to, to give it as a call, to be exposed to it in listening to it and for it. There is no "return to self" because there is no "return point" to begin with; to echo in a call back to the "same self" is to understand the self as this call, the self as a relation or as a between before any distinction between "same" and "other." All of this resonates strongly with his work elsewhere (see especially "Being Singular Plural"). Resonance is "in me" and "I am" this resonance (not myself-to-myself or myself-to-other-selves, but simply self-TO-self; "me" as that very relationship, being-between; self AS "to-self"). We listen for and are exposed to this "to." Being is understood here only as a summons-to-being, not as being-present-at-hand: "Being as resonance" (21). Listening: relationship to self deprived of egoism, ipseity; without an "itself," "other," "identity," or "difference"; an alteration, a variation, a modulation; and the attuning of hope toward an expectation that, without expecting anything, "lets a touch of eternity come again and again" in this outwardly-bounding address. For "that is what sound resounds in: it demands itself again in order to be what it is: sonorous" (67).
I would be remiss if I did not also say that this book is an extended consideration of music as such. The literature on music denies its ability to access the truth of music in a linguistic and semantic way; this itself offers an ample paradigm for the kind of shift in discourse Nancy is "advocating here." Primarily: a shift from discourse as an exercise in meaning and significations to an exercise aware of its rhythms, its dictions, and above its tone and timbre (i.e., its resonance, its listen). His argument for the need to distinguish between sense as signification and sense as sonorous-resounding is strengthened by a short essay on the Nazi's use of music. There, we see music betrayed and perverted and subjugated to an index of signification and oversignification and not the openness of sensibility. He cites Goebbels, who said in 1937, "Art is nothing other than what shapes feeling" (56). To impose upon music a signification is to bar it resonance and/or dissonance. Instead of being given to feel music, as when freely letting an affect come to expression in our experience, so as to open up to it and be opened by, the Nazis forced an expression/affect (i.e. a signification) to experience so as to shape and penetrate subjectivities. But Nancy is clear to point out that this "shaping of feeling" is at work in anything that privileges signification and the imposing of a presence or a present. We have in the Nazi's use of music an example where unabated Meaning, Signification, and Manifestation become privileged over resonance, dissonance, and discordance. It comes down, again, to the distinction between the mimesis of codes as in "making sense" or signifying and the beyond-signification of resonance and sonority (which is not an ineffable signification, but rather that which cannot enter any code and must not be thought of as entering any code). Music cannot be analyzed by a semantic or linguistic code at all; but Nancy is suggestive here: neither can anything else be exhaustively analyzed by a "decoding." For that matter, any "interpretation" exposes the interpreter as being a point of resonance, exposed as such, before he or she can even begin to make an interpretive point. We are exposed in and by our tone well before we make any point or comment or review. Again, it this question of sonority and timbre which precedes content and meaning that Nancy hopes to get us to pay attention to and listen for.
We must listen before we decode. A final essay confirms the fact that we cannot pick one or the other and that this is a very fine line: he asks us to consider the musical (as sensory apprehension, as listening and playing) and the musicianly (as technical apprehension, as decoding, composition, analysis, theory, etc.) and how both must necessary come together in the musician. This is "what links a work to its means," the musical piece to its composition, its Resonance to its Vision, and this is at work in all the arts from writing to architecture. As another reviewer has noted, Nancy writes, "Music is the art of the hope for resonance," but this music (also "the art of making the outside of time return to every time") resonates wherever we touch upon the specific resonances of an artist or a writer or a builder, wherever we get a taste of their tones (67). It is primarily to illuminate this dimension and the importance of tone/timbre (as the rhythm and play with and against "meaning") that Nancy has written this work. In this respect, "Listening" is a reflection on his whole corpus, reflecting once again the primacy Nancy places on the probity of the voice of any thinker (which supersedes and yet coincides with their "thoughts") and ultimately his concern with things themselves and to listening to them with or without comprehension.
While much briefer than many of Nancy's translated works, "Listening" forms a crucial piece for the English reader and serves as a wonderful supplement to his most important work "Corpus" as well as his ontological treatise "Being Singular Plural." This work is also well supplemented by essays to be found in his "A Finite Thinking." It would not be proper of me to not mention that I have the utmost respect for Nancy's work and have been engaged with it for many years now. But, if it exists, my "bias" towards this thinker's writings is due to the infinite ways it has resonated with me and how, with each reading, it assures me that this resonance will continue the more I am exposed to his work (which, I think, is primarily an effort to "listen" before it is to "hear/understand," which situates him in a very special position with regard to philosophy). I hope that you have had patience through my awkward "summary" of his effort here and do decide to listen to Nancy himself on "Listening." Not incidentally, you might start listening in anywhere in his corpus to do so.