anti-babel – sanjay sharma

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Book Review: The Art of Listening

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Back, Les The Art of Listening, Berg 2007 210 pp.

British Journal of Sociology 59(3) © London School of Economics and Political Science 2008

On the front cover of The Art of Listening there is a striking picture of a woman called Donna. A musical score from Stevie Wonder’s song ‘Isn’t She Lovely?’ is tattooed on the inside of her raised arms. The tattoo is in memory of where Donna held her god-daughter, who died of brain cancer. This inscription of love is one of many poignant moments captured in this uniquely crafted book. There are few academic authors who can write a text committed to Sociology, yet are able to profoundly transcend its disciplinary confines. Social theory, empirical inquiry and the joys and sorrows of daily life are literally rediscovered.

Early on in his book, Les Back declares: ‘I started out as an anthropologist, but I was more interested in what was going on at the local bus stop than some distant shore’ (p. 9). The reader quickly learns that such a stance however, does not generate a parochial perspective. To the contrary, Back compels us towards ‘a global sociological imagination’ (p. 23), grounded in the contested encounters of everyday multiculture. He insists that ‘[g]eopolitical insecurity, political violence and deepening social and economic divisions provide the context and the need for the development of a global sociology’ (p. 151).

The book consists of a series of inter-connected essays, critically weaving together contemporary concerns that demand attention: migration and mobility; urban boundaries and exclusions; bodily inscriptions and expressive love; street portraiture and dialogical research; multiculture after September 11th. Each chapter exemplifies an approach for invigorating the craft of an ethical sociology. The book attempts to re-address an accelerated global culture in which revelation and voyeurism increasingly invade and overcome ‘the ordinary yet remarkable things found in everyday life’ (p. 1). At the heart of this text is a deeply reflexive, ethico-political project committed to listening: paying ‘attention to the fragments, the voices and stories that are otherwise passed over or ignored’ (p. 1). The act of listening is not confined to hearing more carefully. What remains unsaid is as important as what has been said. The project involves crafting sociological attention, ‘a mode of thought that works within and through a “democracy of the senses”‘(p. 25).

Back advocates ‘a literary Sociology that aims to document and understand social life without assassinating it’ (p. 164). Symbolic and epistemic violence are commonplace in academe, and the author is troubled by the parasitic machinery of contemporary academia in its unrelenting quest for knowledge. It would be too easy for Back to glibly declare some kind of postmoderm refusal to document the world in order to avoid the risk of objectification. But he is not interested in empty gestures, and confronts the aporia of directly engaging social life thus: ‘When we listen to people, do they give us their stories or do we steal them? At the heart of all social investigation is a dialectical tension between theft and gift, appropriation and exchange’. (p. 96)

Back persistently questions the public relevance of sociology, especially when he movingly recalls visiting his dying father in hospital, a working-class man who never read any of his son’s books. But the author resists simply romanticizing or sublimating the voiceless and the marginalized. For example, he openly explores his family’s residual working-class racism. And when discussing the rise of religious radicalism in the context of the ‘War on Terror’, he questions why there has been ‘a lack of willingness to ask searching questions about the authoritarianism of the powerless’ (p. 140).

There are risks involved in writing a text which attempts to forge a new trajectory for Sociology (a discipline forever anxious about its boundaries and relevance). The offer of a new programme risks either celebrating relativist anarchistic play (where there are no boundaries or rules for Sociology); or conversely, offering a normative account predicated on a moralizing agenda (an imperious Sociology). Back is aware of such pretensions. His work remains faithful to social inquiry – ‘interpretation without legislation’ (p. 1) – while acknowledging the limits of such a project: ‘Ethnographic representation should aspire to better kinds of failure…’ (p. 94). Similarly, he objects to the institutionalization of academic research when maintaining that a ‘regulatory approach to ethics adds little to our understanding…of sociology in action’ (p. 114).

The Art of Listening is a rare book in its commitment to vitalize an ethical, global sociology for the twenty-first century. Students are encouraging their parents to read it. Everyone needs to read this book – especially jaded academics.

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Written by sanjay sharma

14 Sep 08 at 11:57pm

Posted in culture, politics

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