The Labour of Listening in Troubled Times

Kate Lacey

“… listening takes work, makes things work, is work in and of itself …” (Lloyd 2009: 80)

It is often hard to listen to the news. News of war in Ukraine follows hard on the heels of the Covid-19 crisis, Black Lives Matter, #Me Too, and all against the backdrop of recurrent humanitarian disasters and the all-encompassing climate emergency. At the same time, public discourse seems to be becoming increasingly fragmented, distracted, polarized, and bad-tempered, trends that are exacerbated by the contemporary communication infrastructure. The sheer effort of listening, the fatigue that comes with listening in troubled times, draws attention to the labour of listening. That there is, alternatively, solace or respite to be found in sound suggests listening can also function as a labour of care. It follows, then, that it might be fruitful to explore how the labour of listening connects to political action and inaction in mediated experience across the public and the private spheres.[1]

This article explores some of the implications and limitations of framing political debates as a politics of voice and builds on the idea of “listening out” as a necessary technique of political action (Lacey 2013: 3-21). Political listening in this sense is about keeping channels of communication open, accepting ongoing difference and conflicts of interest. It is, therefore, a difficult, challenging and risk-laden labour in the best of times and all the more so in times of division and conflict (Bickford 1996; Hofman 2020). Meanwhile, listening in media studies has tended to conceive of listening, if not as entirely passive, then primarily as a kind of decoding or translation practice – a practice of response. This article is concerned with the labour of political listening in the mediated public sphere. It describes the productive power of listening to generate a space for “voice” and explores the labour involved in preparing the space, time, setting, mood, technologies, and techniques for listening and how that labour is variously valued and exchanged. And it builds on work that thinks about listening not exclusively in relation to sound, finding that sonic vocabulary and metaphors can help reframe notions of the public sphere and politics long shaped and distorted by a reliance on the visual registers of print culture and the spectacle. [2]

The focus here, then, is on listening in the mediated world, that is to say, listening in the disembodied, dispersed, and domesticated encounters with others in the public sphere through ordinary, everyday media technologies. While the public sphere does extend beyond the media, it is the media – in all their variety and ubiquity – that have come to constitute the idea and experience of publicness. It is in the mediated space where we most often and most persistently encounter “the other” (Silverstone 2006) and where political listening has a role to play in the preservation of difference as plurality. Indeed, there is something about the current condition of “permanent receptivity” in this saturated media environment that makes listening a truly apposite starting point for understanding our public experience. Public listening in this sense is not confined to sonic media alone, but rather describes a disposition that is suggested in the etymological roots of the word “audience.”[3] Thinking of audiences as listening publics begins to recognise not only their active engagement with individual mediated texts but their active role in the constitution of the public sphere. In other words, this is a politics of listening that does not begin with voice, but which recognises that listening can also be productive of voice. Listening is a rich category to explore how citizens traverse the public/private divide, bridging as it does both sensory experience and participation in the political realm. Together with the fact that listening is predicated on responsiveness and rooted in intersubjectivity (Couldry 2006: 6; Crawford 2009: 515; Lacey 2013: 49-50), listening is, in fact, one of the ways in which the artifice of such binary divisions is revealed and contested and how the understanding of the political is expanded (Hofman 2020: 307-309).

Beyond speaking up, being heard

In March 2021, the public conversation in the UK was dominated by the question of women’s safety on the streets in the wake of the abduction and murder of a young woman by an off-duty policeman. Sarah Everard had just been walking home. It was just one more example of everyday violence against women, but for various reasons it was an example that broke through to dominate the headlines for days (e.g., BBC 2021). Women once again were speaking up and mobilising to “reclaim the streets” (Crowdjustice 2021). Feminists once again were having to make the point that the media framing of this story as one about “women’s safety” rather than about “men’s violence” was part of the problem, as the conversation turned repeatedly to what women can do to protect ourselves, or even how we should calm down and put our fears into statistical perspective.

This was just one example of an all too familiar pattern that reveals how a politics of voice can fall into the trap of requiring marginalised or dispossessed groups to find solutions when we ask how to “give people a voice” or how to “make ourselves heard.” Again, feminists have long critiqued how women have to learn to speak in certain ways in order to be heard in public spaces that were set up to recognise and validate certain forms of speech over others (McLaughlin 1993; Kay 2020). Techniques that centre on “giving people a voice” or that focus on how to adapt modes of speech to a given situation to be “heard” can certainly be important tactics, but they are limited, strategically, in addressing the “crisis of voice” (Couldry 2008), because they are accommodations to a prevailing system where some voices persistently resonate more than others.

One response to the crisis of voice has been to think about listening, particularly the responsibilities of people in power or positions of privilege to listen to the voices of others. But, without diminishing the significance of this ambition, this position actually tends to remain rooted in that same politics of voice. This is because, in situations like politicians’ listening events, voices speak in response to a question posed by the ostensible “listener.” In other words, it is the voice of the listener as speaker that frames the discussion. Not only does this produce the context within which voices come to speak, it means voices will still only get listened to if they are answering the question posed and if they are answered in a form that suits the listener’s purposes. This limitation is concealed in plain sight in that well-meaning phrase, “giving someone a voice,” which, from this point of view, actually suggests some kind of extenuated ventriloquist act.

The privileging of voice in liberal constructions of democracy went hand in hand with the rise of capitalism and the framing of freedom of expression as a property right.[4] In this dominant Western imagining, voice as self-expression figures as a personal belonging or as a product to be circulated and exchanged in the free market place of ideas. Listening, historically, has not been framed in the same way as an individual property right(though it could be commodified at one remove in terms of circulation and audience figures of various sorts). This means, by extension, that listening in public contexts was not associated with self-expression in the same way; indeed, it was seen as belonging to the voice in significant ways. Being part of a listening public means listening alongside others, inhabiting a space of plurality and collectivity - an intersubjective positioning which goes against the grain of an ideology grounded in individualism and the idealisation of voice. To the extent that listening figures at all, it tends to appear as a responsive activity and therefore a by-product of voice. Liberal political theory articulates the freedom of speech, not the freedom of listening.[5] Much media theory, including models of media literacy, tends to engage with listening as reception and decoding of specific media texts or environments.

I would like to argue, instead, for a politics of listening that does not come out of a politics of voice, nor one that rejects a politics of voice, but one that might sit alongside it. At one level, this simply recognises that “to listen” is a verb that, in English at least, does not require an object. It is possible to listen without listening to anything. Listening can therefore describe a state of anticipation, that is, a listening out for something unexpected or as yet undefined. There is a radical openness in this anticipatory disposition of listening publics that could have surprisingly profound implications for reconfiguring a politics of voice in a mediated world. Rather than (or alongside) thinking about voices trying to reach a public and stimulating them into a response, it would mean thinking in terms of there being a public listening out for voices – providing a space, a calling, and a reason for those voicings. Rather than just thinking of a listening public in the form of an audience, constituted by a particular voice or text and engaged primarily in its decoding, it would mean also thinking about the critical potential that lies latent in the public. It would recognise the part played by listeners – that is to say, the labour of listeners – both embodied and emergent, in the production of the spaces and stimuluses by which voices come to speak. It would mean that instead of conceiving critical listening only as a responsive practice, it would recognise the productive power of listening and its political responsibilities. A crucial role of listening out, for example, is in enabling and auditing the diversity of voices in the public sphere (Lacey 2011).

But perhaps the most radical dimension of listening out lies in its characteristic intersubjectivity and resistance to commodification. It is in this sense, I argue that listening publics occupy a potentially radical political space in the face of any number of institutional, psychological, and algorithmic mechanisms currently steering us towards voices that sound like our own or that bear the imprint of our previous choices and predilections. Listening out for voices that confront and jar as well as those that comfort and support is difficult and challenging, but it is an essential technique of democratic political life. Recognising listening as a political action also works to counter the fetishizing of voice as the only marker of political participation. To do so is to address a significant “democratic deficit” (Dobson 2012). In short, then, just as the freedom of speech is a freedom that needs to be practiced, honed, and defended if it is not to wither away, then so must it be matched by a freedom of listening, by which I mean not just a freedom to listen in, but a responsibility to listen out.[6]

The ethics of listening in troubled times

If listening out is a responsibility that is already difficult and challenging within the current configuration of media communication, how much more so in troubled times, when global economic, geopolitical, technological, epidemiological, and environmental processes beyond the control of the individual are part of daily lived experience. Thinking sonically, we might think of troubled times in fact as times of “disquiet” or “unquiet,” the response to which might well be to shield one’s ears. The rise in slow radio, ASMR sites, wellbeing apps offering calming, healing sounds, and so on, can be seen as part of a lucrative “mindfulness industry” that belies a defensive and privatised response to the “malign velocities” of contemporary life (Noys 2014). It is a trope that has a longer history but which has become ubiquitous by being so easily aligned with the interests of neoliberal economics and the politics of individualism (Lacey 2022, in press). Social critic Christopher Lasch (1985: 15) many years ago described how, in the “society of the self,” everyday life in troubled times becomes “an exercise in survival” which is as likely to take the form of emotional retreat and political disengagement as to provoke some sort of political action or resistance. Others might describe retreat precisely, or at least potentially, as an act of resistance to the alienated and over-surveilled public spaces of neoliberal media (LaBelle 2020: 5). Still others might see retreat as a tactical expression of self-care, the better to return to the fray, restored and refreshed (Lorde 1988 Hofman 2020).

However, there is another body of literature that recognises an ethical imperative to listen, one that becomes more urgent in periods of disquiet. Indeed, listening out in an era of polarisation can itself represent a resistance to being compelled or commanded to listen only as an addressee (Readings 1996: 162). Certainly, political listening in times of conflictand discord, “staying with the trouble”, as feminist theorist Donna Haraway (2016) might have it, needs bravery and resilience (Bickford 1996: 168; Bassel 2017). It also requires a certain generosity and openness to listen “across difference” (Dreher 2009), to listen “obliquely” (Beausoleil 2021), or even to “dwell in discomfort” (de Souza and Dreher 2019). Indeed, it might well require an expanded definition of what listening entails, in particular listening beyond the auditory (Pinnock 2017; Street 2019) and beyond the human (Rose 2015; Kanngieser 2015; Hoppe 2020) and certainly beyond the normative Eurocentric conceptualisations of political listening considered here.[7] However, we should not pretend that listening of any sort easily or necessarily produces a space of empathy, concord, harmony, or mutual respect. Listening out is necessary because of diversity and dissonance, but this very diversity makes it hard work. It is made all the harder by cultural trends and communication infrastructures that shepherd us into public spaces of similarity, gratification, and comfort. But the work of listening out across difference and despite the discomfiture is, paradoxically, precisely the work that is necessary to preserve diversity of thought and opinion.

The productivity of listening

Conventionally, labour is understood as belonging to the realm of production and, from a feminist perspective, reproduction. Listening, on the other hand, at least in relation to the media, is understood as the archetypal form of consumption. This is compounded by the common confusion of listening with hearing, a move that elides the cultural capital invested in learning how to listen in historically and culturally specific ways. There is, then, something counter-intuitive about the idea of listening as either laborious or as being productive. The contention here, however, is that listening out produces a space for “voice”, indeed, for communication altogether. The labour of listening out, in other words, makes things happen, brings things into being. In rhetorical terms, listening “is not simply auditory; it is a framing of the speech” (Rayner 1993: 20). Indeed, listening out is the act that ultimately produces speech – it is in the expectation of willing listeners that transforms ideas and thoughts into the act of voicing. It is the expectation of there being a listening public that engenders public expression. Moreover, it is the condition of being able to listen as a collective, or at least as a multitude, that reveals the important intersubjective condition of listening in public.

A great deal of effort can go into producing the conditions conducive for listening, whether in interpersonal situations or via media infrastructures. In any listening situation, we need to acknowledge the labour involved in preparing the space, time, setting, mood, technologies, and techniques for listening. This is not a straightforward process. For example, in her recent description of a listening toolbox for feminist practice, Claudia Firth has written that,

if the labour of listening is to be taken seriously it also often necessitates a slow process-based temporality. It is not always enough to set up a space and declare it as a space in which listening can take place, as often happens with managerial or public consultations. (Firth 2020: 308)

In times of trouble, of conflict and dissonance, this process of preparation can really take a long time, a lot of listening to and by all parties(Farinati and Firth 2017: 81-86). In her work on the politics of listening, political sociologist Leah Bassel (2017: 18) suggests in a similar vein that “solidarity is a conversation in which relationships are built over the long-term.” It is necessary to listen openly and with great patience until others feel comfortable in speaking or voicing their position. Listening then, particularly in interpersonal spaces, but also in media publics, is a practice of building mutual trust. Speakers must trust that there is an audience ready and willing to listen. It is the labour of listening to create and communicate those conditions of trust.

The labour of learning to listen

So, there is a labour in preparing the conditions for listening, but also of course in developing the skills of both listening out and listening in. Generally, when we think of listening skills, it is the latter that come to the fore. These kinds of listening-in skills are field-specific and context-dependent. They may be skills akin to therapeutic listening, for example, or the skills of decoding associated with the work of appreciation, connoisseurship, and various forms of media literacy. Here again, we must acknowledge the labour involved in developing these skills over time, the investment in accruing specialist forms of “auditory capital” (Lacey 2016). There is much to be said about this “training of the ear” and the professionalisation of listening in various specialist fields, whether in music, journalism, pedagogy, anthropology, acoustic ecology, engineering, or the sounding arts (Droumeva and Andrisani 2011; Bijsterveld 2019; Worthington and Bodie 2020). However, it is generally less readily acknowledged how the “baseline” listening expertise in the modern world is profoundly transformed over time by everyday engagement with the sonic complexity of the media.

Much cultural labour has been invested by designers, advertisers, institutions, and individuals in developing techniques to manage, mitigate, and master the changing sonic environment. The most pertinent indicator of this transformation is the way in which disembodied voices, once firmly denizens of the uncanny, have come to be routinely and unremarkably accepted as faithful reproductions of the real. Combined with the technologies of transmission that allowed listeners to enter into some sort of communion with distant others in real time, these transformations have had far-reaching implications for politics in its re-auralisation of the public sphere. It is through this unacknowledged labour over time, this century-long practice of listening to mediated sounds, that listeners have built up new stores of auditory capital that can be drawn on and exchanged in the ongoing labour of listening.

But if the act of listening accommodates to the changing affordances of the mediated environment over time, and if that means listeners work to become skilled in multiple ways of listening, it does not follow that all forms of listening come easy or that listening isn’t an ongoing form of labour. In terms of political participation in particular, I would suggest that listening is part of the struggle of finding a voice, of coming into being as a citizen. The very phrase “finding a voice” reveals that speaking up in public is a practice that has to be learned, honed, and defended - by listening to others and by being listened to. It is in this way that “voice,” the “I” who speaks, is socially grounded (Couldry 2010: 5). But learning to listen is also a social responsibility with social and political consequences. In The Listening Self, philosopher David Levin wrote that,

failure to cultivate the skill of listening is connected with the increasing problematisation of rational consensus and the breakdown of traditional processes of legitimation. (Levin 1989: 3)

The labour of listening from this perspective is, then, about individual empowerment, but it is also about empowering the democratic process. If finding a voice is a struggle, then learning to listen as part of that process is also a struggle – and how much more so in times of crisis, polarisation, and cancel culture.

Listening as cognitive and emotional labour

Political listening is not just a matter of absorbing information, nor simply empathising or identifying with speakers, but is in some sense a process of recognition and translation. “Recognition” looms large in the literature on political listening and has to do with the intellectual and cognitive labour associated with listening across difference (Bickford 1996; O’Donnell, Lloyd and Dreher 2009; Thill 2018). It is about reflecting on and re-thinking what you thought you knew about the other and yourself, a process, literally, of re-cognition. There is an affinity between political listening and critical thinking in the sense that they are about being open and receptive to new ideas, being ready and willing to change, but at the same time recognising that the speech act itself is being produced, shaped, and reshaped in relation to the speaker’s image of, and response to, their listeners. As documentarist Kim Munro (2018: 295) has put it, “[t]o really listen to another is an acknowledgement of the complexity of difference,” and that acknowledgement takes work, particularly as it might, not least in troubled times, involve the courage to reposition oneself and to foreground difference (Dobson 2014: 847).

There is also in this kind of listening a degree of emotional labour.[8] Hochschild’s (1985: 7) original definition of emotional labour described the requirement – in private, commercial, and public situations – to “induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outer countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.” It is a description that is akin to the process by which a listener or listeners might come to produce the “proper” conditions for others to speak. This management of emotions is necessarily part of private and social life, but under market conditions it can be sold – or exploited – as labour, particularly in the service industries: for example, the requirement to smile or to maintain a neutral demeanour, regardless of one’s inner feelings.

Just as the dimension of emotional labour continues all too often to go unrecognised in workplaces and wage structures, the labour of listening in the work of citizenship in the mediated public sphere is barely acknowledged. In many treatments of what might be caricatured as an “ideal listening situation,” including those associated with political listening, the unspoken assumption is that the exchange happens at an interpersonal level, face to face, where “the outer countenance” finds its charge. This kind of listening work therefore often stresses the need for proximity and specificity and the acceptance of a mutually agreed set of rules in which listening is reciprocated. But this requirement of embodied presence, intimacy, and reciprocity is complicated at scale and in relation to the mediatisation on which the very idea of the public rests.

Intimacy, at first, seems at odds with everyday forms of distanced, dispersed, and disciplined media communications. However, this would be to neglect the role of mediation in producing intimacy – in the sense of enabling our knowledge of distant others, of deepening the traces of many different lives over time, of maintaining intimacies when circumstances keep us apart. The daily, often prosaic details of social media posts allows people to “tune in” to other people’s lives and, as the Twitter tagline has it, hear “what’s happening and what people are talking about right now.” This produces what has been described as “ambient intimacy” (Reichelt in Crawford 2009: 528). Indeed, much of our mediated communication, and particularly our mediated listening, is often less about listening for content than it as about phatic communication, listening for affect and connection. This became very evident through the troubled times of the pandemic, particularly for many of those living through lockdowns, when reliance on mediated communication exploded into almost every aspect of experience. One such account describes how,

the pandemic and its home-centric living intensified our attempts to pay attention to varied media texts and accounts of other media users in a way that highlighted recognition and orientation to others instead of concentrating on one’s voice becoming heard. (Soronen and Talvitie-Lamber 2021: 303)

In a crisis, we might turn to the media for solace and escapism. But we might also seek ontological security, understanding, and solidarity through listening to official announcements, news reports, and expert opinions and also in listening out to test how our own experiences are reflected through others’ reactions (Lipscombe 2022). Listening out in this instance becomes about learning how to situate oneself, how to make sense of a situation. As Munro argues, in the context of rethinking documentary practice:

A turn towards listening makes visible multiple forms of knowledge and relationships as well as an ethics of care. […] Becoming attuned to listening is an ethical imperative to reconsider our individual positions as implicated within a broader ecology of existence and an awareness of positions that are incommensurate with our own. (Munro 2013: 297-298)

In these descriptions we see how listening is a practice that cannot but connect the public and the private, the cognitive, and the affective. We also see the role of listening in the construction of a civic identity in the modern mediated world.

Listening, citizenship, and the media

The emphasis on embodied encounters in work on political listening is part of a long tradition in Western thought of holding up dialogue as the archetype of good and generous communication, with its give and take; however, it does presuppose a scenario where participants in a dialogue are equal in status, number, and power and are already in agreement about the rules of engagement and turn-taking (Schudson 1997). Forms of spoken communication that are not interpersonal, nor bespoke, or that are not immediate (unfolding in real time and without the artifice of technological mediation) are correspondingly devalued. While there are few moral panics about readers not immediately responding as writers, much of the distrust of mass communication rests in the misrecognition of the listener being rendered voiceless.

Broadcasting represents the archetypal form of mass communication and was long decried as monologic, unidirectional, and a form of propagandistic communication that renders its listeners mute. And yet, as media historian and communications scholar John Durham Peters (1999) has so compellingly reasoned, it is arguably a generous form of communication, a “loving” and disinterested form of communication that does not require reciprocation, or rather does not require reciprocation in real time or in kind (Scannell 2004). In its original agricultural meaning, broadcasting refers to scattering seeds (dissemination) across the whole ground rather than planting them in drills or rows (OED 2022). The Biblical parable of the sower (famously portrayed in Ecic Gill’s sculpture in the foyer of BBC Broadcasting House) is just one example of how broadcasting has long been used as a metaphor for a form of communication that aims to reach everyone, whether or not they are guaranteed to be receptive, whether or not, in other words, the message falls on fertile or stony ground.[9] Targeted, personalised, algorithmically bespoke forms of communication – insemination in prepared and fertile soil, if you will – is certainly a more efficient and more predictable mode of communication. But it leaves much less room for the labour of listening if messages are always already tailored to a particularly receptive ear.

There are good reasons to say that we have been living these last hundred years in “the radio century” (Lacey forthcoming). Certainly, radio broadcasting ushered in the now commonplace experience of listening to distant others, of collective listening, of constituting communicative spaces that could transgress physical, political (national), and social boundaries. Moreover, it popularized an accessible mode of communication that, like print, is not dependent on immediate reciprocity. In this context, the sonic metaphor of resonance is more apposite than that of dialogue, capturing how listeners’ responses may be delayed and may take a variety of forms beyond simple reciprocity (Lacey 2013: 166-7. Indeed, broadcasting, along with successive generations of playback technologies, has allowed for other novel forms of listening work – listening back, listening repeatedly, listening to voices past, listening anew. Media technologies, then, afford a rich menu of listening activities and new modes of listener autonomy that exceed the narrow confines of a simple dialogic model.

Electronic media, particularly those that came to play a significant part in public life – such as radio and the audiovisual media of film, television, and video – served to bring sounds and voices back into a public sphere constructed and long characterised by the muted language of print and the specialised decoding skills of the silent reading public.[10] The apparent immediacy of listening to the spoken word as it was broadcast was greeted by many commentators with great hope for the potential to make more accessible in terms of reach, convenience, and vividness the political debates and deliberations of the day. But for others it was exactly this apparent lack of labour – or effort or intent – involved on the part of a listener as opposed to a reader that rendered these new listening publics passive and impressionable and therefore not to be trusted. Or, in a more nuanced version of this position, new forms of distinction were ascribed to the act of listening, with concentrated, attentive listening accorded more cultural value than secondary or distracted listening (Goodman 2009). In other words, in a culture that values literacy, listening that engages with mediated sounds as texts to be decoded is valued more highly than listening as a more immersive, sensory experience.

This undervaluing of listening has been echoed in the relative lack of attention given to listening in relation to the politics of voice and, by extension, the critical disdain for media audiences in comparison to the reading public in accounts of democratic practice (Bieger 2018). However, this kind of listening work undertaken by media audiences – routinised, pervasive, adaptable to multiple contexts over a lifetime – is as much part of the modern entrainment of a public sensitivity under new technological conditions as had been the development of an audience-oriented subjectivity among the literate bourgeoisie famously described by Jürgen Habermas (1991: 29) in his early writing on the structural transformation of the public sphere.

Thanks to the primacy of print culture, or rather print capitalism (Anderson 1983), in the foundation of modern democratic nation states in the Global North, literacy became a measure of both development and democracy; however, broader definitions of media literacy, including political listening, should also properly be part of the equation in the era of mass democracy and mass communication over the last century. Indeed, the reticence in recognising listening as an active mode of participation in the democratic public space is, from this perspective, to hold on to a more exclusionary model of political participation forged in an earlier age. The marginalisation of listening is replicated in contemporary models of digital literacy that tend to prioritise the ability to participate in the production and circulation of content and in discussions of digital labour that focus on the economics of content creation.

In turn, this is part of - that much longer ideological history described above, in which self-expression has been conceptualised as a property right and as a product in the marketplace of opinion. Listening, historically at least, was not available for commodification, measurement, or exchange, nor was it something that could easily “belong” to an individual. The models of citizenship and civic action that emerged to characterise modern democratic experience were always already inclined towards individual expression. The prospect of digital media enabling individual voices to speak up more easily in the public sphere was, not surprisingly, widely celebrated as a democratising force and continues to be broadly accepted as a public good, despite the proliferation of anti-democratic practices in social media and other online spaces. Interactivity was hailed as the antidote to the perceived passivity of classic media audiences (listening publics) and was celebrated for its promise to give people back a voice and for them to use that voice to speak back to power. And yet, paradoxically, this focus on voice once again marginalises the act of listening, or fails to even recognise it as an act, demonising it as lurking, eavesdropping, or non-participation (Lutz and Hoffmann 2017; Galarza Molina 2017).[11] Interactivity, as it manifested in much of the public discourse, rested on a one-dimensional model of participation where, in the absence of any need to be listened to, the abundance of content has assumed the characteristics of economic rather than communicative exchange (Dean 2005: 53).

The valuation of listening in the media

If the labour of listening has been largely absent from descriptions of political agency, there is a sense in which it has been recognised and valued as labour within the circuit of economic exchange through digital media infrastructures. The media economy, at least in terms of commercial models, is an attention economy – how to attract people to content and how to quantify the number of people attending to that content and the quality of that attention. Basically, if it can be quantified, it can be monetised, by selling the audience to advertisers. To this extent, the media industries have long recognised “audiencing” (Fiske 1992) as a type of labour. In particular, the work of an audience is to read, watch or listen to the advertising in order to be rewarded by the informational content or entertainment (or, some would argue, to be exploited as unpaid labourers in the communication economy).[12] The function of communication in this marketplace, however, is first and foremost the production of audiences, or more specifically, the “audience commodity”; the production of content is primarily the means to that end (Smythe 1977; Napoli 2010 Nixon 2015).

Much of the listening we do as media audiences is secondary listening, listening that is distracted, something that we do while doing something else – driving, working, walking, exercising, or even engaging with other visual media content. In the online world, lurking, eavesdropping, indeed simply listening is valued less highly than demonstrating interaction in some way, even if that is an act as limited as sharing or liking. Insofar as listening per se is hard to measure, or hard to control, it might suggest that the act of listening is at some level an act of resistance or escape from the commercial media logics. However, the act of finding and activating things to listen to online does, like any other online activity, unwilfully leave its digital mark in the form of cookies and increasingly sophisticated tracking data.

To this extent, the labour of media listening is also productive of valuable data about interests, tastes, and connections, which can be combined with personal data gathered via any other online interaction to provide particularized information about political and other sensibilities and how they map on to information about socio-economic status, demographic traits, or consumer habits. Records of how long a listener stays on a site, how they landed on the site or scrolled through it, where they were listening and with what intensity all provide data in extraordinarily granular detail.

Listening activity has thus become newly visible and increasingly commodified, and listener research is big business. One of the biggest companies currently analysing listening data for major media clients as well as governments in the Global North is Edison Research, established in 1998, which describes itself as, “the survey of record for digital audio, social media, podcasting, smart speakers and other media-related technologies.” Significantly, its two major surveys of listening behaviours are not based on digital data mining. Instead, its Infinite Dial® surveys are based on randomised telephone surveys, while the quarterly Share of Ear® surveys are based on respondents’ listening diaries. These surveys still produce quantitative data in the tradition of classic audience research – demographic analyses of how people reflect on how they listen and what they listen to. In other words, their proprietary reports identify and analyse trends in listening habits at a population level.

Streaming services and other digital distribution technologies are therefore also technologies of surveillance, allowing for “precise monitoring of individual media consumption” (Fleischer 2021: 16). That monitoring is not only valuable data for advertisers but also feeds back into algorithms which tailor recommendations based on a consumer’s individual listening history. Insofar as personalisation is also a feature of news provision and other services, this is the model that tends towards a culture of echo chambers and filter bubbles, of listening in to familiar voices.

Nevertheless, it is also true that the sheer volume of voices and views in social media spaces does in principle offer new avenues for research of public opinion beyond its economic value alone. Interestingly, the software and research tools to gather and analyse these data in real time goes by the name of “social media listening.” This kind of market research is not quite the same as monitoring, which has more to do with collecting raw quantitative data. Social media listening is more concerned with the mood or sentiment behind the data. As one provider puts it social media listening allows]companies or brands “to keep an ear to the ground in [their] industry” (Newberry and Macready 2022). Indeed, the majority of the data analytics industry dealing in social publications is targeted not on public opinion polling in the political sphere but in market research and reputation management for the benefit of private companies (Kotras 2020: 1496). Significantly, the software is designed not to produce representative accounts of public opinion, weighted to reflect demographics, but to produce accounts based on the most influential or controversial opinions (Kotras 2020: 1506) or the loudest voices in the space. It is also significant, in terms of labour relations, that the professionalisation of listening (as listening research) in the mainstream media sphere seems to be dominated by the commercial sector. Otherwise, listening to the media remains an amateur pursuit, arguably associated more with personal interests and leisure than work.


It should be evident by now that there are various ways in which the concept of listening is at work in this discussion. It is a term that appears both as a mode of attention to sonic media, including the spoken word, and as a metaphor for the work of audiencing more broadly. It is also a term that figures as a corrective to normative formulations of the public sphere that privilege voice over communication and as a critique of models that continue to theorise post-print publics in terms of literacy. In some contexts, listening also has associations with monitoring, surveillance, and control.

This density of meaning is precisely why listening proves to be such a useful critical category. It also reflects the fact that listening is not some abstruse or abstract activity but something that is core to everyday life, work, and pleasure, to subject formation, to communication, and to politics. This ordinariness, this ubiquitous experience and unremarkable expertise, accounts for why, on the one hand, listening tends to be taken for granted. On the other hand, the very complexity and diversity of listening practices produces scholarship across the spectrum of academic disciplines but all too rarely between them. In media studies,listening has received comparatively little attention beyond how certain audio texts are received.[13] Meanwhile, in terms of thinking about listening as a technique of political life, most work tends to concentrate on practices in interpersonal settings or in politicians’ intermittent promises to “listen” to the electorate (Macnamara 2013).

This article argues that we need to think about the labour of listening in becoming a citizen and in exercising citizenship. Citizenship is not only about having a voice but about having the capacity and the responsibility to listen to others’ voices. Political listening works to keep lines of communication open and is bound up with the process of reaching political judgement through granting a hearing. It is in listening to a plurality of voices, and not only in the context of immediate dialogue, that citizens come to have a voice of their own. And it is in exercising the freedom of listening that limitations on plurality are registered, whether that be the dominance, marginalization, or absence of certain voices.

One of the advantages of framing the discussion in terms of the labour of listening is that it demonstrates the privatisation of listening in the contemporary media sphere, which is at odds with the democratic work required of the listening public as auditors of public debate and deliberation. Thinking about this in relation to mediated experience raises questions of media ethics – an ethics of reception, yes, but also an ethical imperative in relation to our infrastructures of communication that even in the best of times mitigate against what communications scholar and social theorist Nick Couldry (2006) has called “listening beyond the echoes.” It also raises questions for media literacy, suggesting a need for initiatives to invest in the skills required for listening out and receptive generosity. It takes effort to remain open and curious, to listen courageously and adventurously, and it is a labour that in its public constitution is only possible in community with others*.* This democratic work is labour that needs investment in terms of civic education and communications infrastructure. But that, in turn, requires that the labour of listening first be recognised as a public service and a public good.


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  1. I am grateful for insights from anonymous readers and from listeners to earlier versions of this paper delivered at conferences organised at Birmingham City University, the Institut Kunst Gender Natur in Basel, and the Listening Academy, London. ↩︎

  2. For a fuller discussion of these ideas, see Listening Publics, especially “Listening in the Age of Spectacle” (Lacey 2013: 51-110). The argument here is not an attempt to privilege listening or to separate it from other sense perceptions, which would be absurd, but rather to demonstrate how the embodied and critical activity of listening is a rich category of analysis with which to rethink the practices, politics, and ethics of media communication. ↩︎

  3. “Audience”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, has its roots in the classical Latin audientia, meaning the act of listening, attention, or body of listeners. ↩︎

  4. Note that the conceptualisation of voice (as expression) as a personal belonging and property right obscures the process of listening to other voices over a lifetime by which one comes to have a voice “of one’s own.” ↩︎

  5. For an elaboration of this line of argument, see Lacey (2011; 2013). ↩︎

  6. To be clear, the argument here is that both listening in and listening out are necessary but not sufficient aspects of democratic practice, however, the idea of listening out has received scant attention in comparison to listening in. ↩︎

  7. Of course, listening varies in practice and in theory according to different positionalities, different auditory regimes, and different hearing dis/abilities. For some critiques of normative constructions of listening in Western theorisations, see Dreher 2009; Dhawan 2012; Thompson 2017; Robinson 2020; Labelle 2020; Sterne 2021 [check date please]; Drever and Hugill 2022; Sosta 2022. ↩︎

  8. Indeed, we could turn this around and say that a large part of emotional labour has to do with listening. Listening, as a way of enacting and demonstrating empathy is persistently coded as a labour of care and widely, by extension, as feminine (Parks and Barta 2018: 30-33). This association may go some way to account for the historical disregard for listening and the labour of listening in theorisations of political and mediated communication (Scudder 2020). It is notable that much, if not most, of the work done to recuperate the role of listening in political and communications theory has been done by women. ↩︎

  9. For more on this, see Peters 1999: 52; Avery 2006: 79; Lacey 2013: 183. ↩︎

  10. This is a medium-theoretical position indebted, in part, to Carpenter and McLuhan’s conceptualisation of acoustic space (1960). For a fuller discussion, see Lacey 2013: 22-50. ↩︎

  11. For a nuanced discussion of modes of online participation and non-participation, albeit one that does not address listening as either practice or metaphor, see Casemajor, Couture, Delfin, Goerzen and Delfanti (2015). See Nico Carpentier (2016) for an account of the varying and sometimes contradictory ways in which “participation” figures in different disciplinary traditions, albeit with listening again absent as a term. ↩︎

  12. For a detailed overview of these arguments, see Fuchs 2013. ↩︎

  13. There are, of course, notable exceptions, not least in the field of medium theory and more environmental understandings of the media, spurred on in recent years by the interplay with the field of sound studies. For a detailed overview of how listening has featured (or not) across a century of media studies, see Lacey 2020. ↩︎