Historical Roots of Listening And Consciousness The Ancient and Pre–Modern Worlds



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Historical Roots of Listening And Consciousness
The Ancient and Pre–Modern Worlds


By Michael Purdy (m–purdy@govst.edu)

Governors State University

University Park, IL 60466

International Listening Association

Thursday, March 19, 1998

Kansas City, Mo.




Historical Roots of Listening And Consciousness
The Ancient and Pre–Modern Worlds


This paper will explore the history of listening from the ancient (mythic) to the pre–modern (mental) rational world. It will investigate this transitional period from the mythic structure of consciousness to the mental structure of consciousness—a movement from where listening had an “equal” and complementary role in communication to where speaking predominated. In discussing this theme I want to talk about: problems of historical listening research, the structures of consciousness involved, and finally, the historical transition of consciousness from mythic to mental.

Problems of Historical Listening Research


One method for studying listening is the description how it is practiced in everyday life. Dealing with listening historically this is not available. It would be useful if we had historical audio/video descriptions of people listening. Of course we don’t, but we do have short quotes, adages, telling us of the value of listening. These works are to some degree descriptive of listening and the importance of listening, but they are mostly prescriptive of the utility of listening well.

The problems of researching listening historically are daunting. An historical conceptualization of listening (receptive communication) presents problems that communication as speaking (or any form of expression) does not. First, speaking has been the predominant form of communication stressed and favored throughout the Western tradition from the Greeks onward. Second, speaking like other modes of expression can be re–produced, concretized and preserved in textual/visual form for study (it can be con-textualized, although only in a limited manner because a thick description of the context is lost)—listening cannot. Hence, listening has not been prominent in the history of Western communication and has been all but ignored for a number of reasons which will be highlighted in this paper. Listening as the receptive dimension of communication is a process of perceiving and interpreting oral communication and as a perceptual/interpretive process1 it is not visible or concrete, making its study problematic (in a related manner reading serves the same function for written communication).

I often think the problems are similar to those of feminist studies. Women were not typically given prominence or even mentioned, and hence, do not appear in the historical record. How do you add back into history what was left out? This is the same problem as listening has—only worse—there is almost no mention of listening in the historical record. What we must work with are reflections considering the listener from the speaker’s perspective, traces that indirectly indicate something about listening, and a few written shards preserved in quotes taken from a variety of sources.

Mythic and Mental Structures of Consciousness

Culture and Consciousness


The problem of understanding communication during any time period is one of entering a different period of culture—or even civilization—and hence, a new structure of consciousness, according to Jean Gebser (The Ever–Present Origin [EPO, p. 1984). Jean Gebser’s depiction of structures of consciousness derives from a strict phenomenological description of historical cultures (civilizations). The same structures may also be seen in the development of the human from the womb (archaic) to the passage from childhood to adulthood (mental) celebrated in many cultures. Hence, Gebser’s structures of consciousness are not constructs or conceptualizations but descriptions that reflect what he discovered; and they are also structures of consciousness that are still very much alive in our day–to–day lives—they are not just historical relics.

The word “structure” in the phrase “structure of consciousness” should not be considered in the typical objective sense of a reified concept, but more as a set of characteristics which may be observed together, alternately referred to as a “pattern” or “mode” of consciousness. The approach of the study of consciousness is not a clear–cut model which categorizes according to dichotomies, or other conceptual schemes. When we examine the premises of this paper from the approach of consciousness we enter a much larger realm. The study of consciousness is the study of the way we conceive of reality, but more, it provides an understanding of the way we structure all of our experience whether conceived to be real (of reality) or otherwise. It is essentially the way we are “in” the world and a matter of how we “construct” that being in the world.

So we have the challenge of describing the ways of living and communicating in various times and cultures. In approaching this problem, we first need to digress to discuss the two structures of consciousness involved in the shift we are discussing: the mental—the currently predominant structure—and the mythic structure which preceded the mental. There are also two structures of conscious prior to the mythic, the archaic and the magical, and one currently emerging and replacing the mental, the integral structure of consciousness. For the purposes of this paper, focusing on the shift from mythic to mental, we will briefly mention the magical and the integral.

Magic Consciousness: Pre–Oral Culture

A paragraph or two should give a sense of the pattern of magical consciousness. This will also help clarify the mythic which often gets conflated with the magical2.

The magical structure of consciousness is often depicted in period statues with no mouth. No mouth, no myth—no orality. The lack of mouth in the magic structure “indicates to what extent magic man placed significance on what he heard, that is, on the sounds of nature [my emphasis], and not on what was spoken” (EPO, p. 57). This can “be experienced today, as will be evident to anyone who has ever felt utterly spellbound by music, especially in a large audience whose members have become one with the music, with the performer, with one another” (Behnke, 1987).

Magic consciousness does not as yet indicate an individuated ego so “Communication between members of the group–ego—the ‘We’—does not as yet require language. . . . The egolessness of the individual . . . demands participation and communication on the basis of the collective and vital intentions; the inseparable bonds of the clan are the dominant principle” (EPO, p. 58). The group “communicates” in a “celebration” of its unitary action and is vitally intermeshed and in harmony with nature. But since there is not individuated ego the relationship of members of the group ego is one which would not even single out a phenomena called communication (as we define the term today). Indeed, there are a number of older cultures yet today which have no word for communication, i.e., no need to differentiate or label a process which joins separate individuals.

If individuals experience no separateness, no differentiation from others as is typical of magic consciousness (just the opposite is experienced in the mental-rational consciousness), there is no need to communicate to reduce the distance or uncertainty. A para–magical communication experience is described today in the area of nonverbal communication, as for example, in John Steven’s term “confluence.” “Confluence means ‘flowing together,’ as two streams joining together into a single stream” (p. 121–22)3.

Magic man4 possesses a vital potency by which “the entire body . . . forms a seamless transition to the flux of things and nature with which he is merged” (EPO, p. 64). His mergence with nature is also an auditory awareness and attunement. Although magic consciousness was auditory and placed emphasis on what was heard, that hearing was not “oral” as we are discussing it in this paper, and was not listening by most current definitions of listening, but rather, hearing. As de Kerckhove writes “Listening is a product of selective attention, as opposed to hearing, which is not inner but outer–controlled” (p. 6). There is no individual selective attention, or interpretation in the auditory experience of magic consciousness; the process of magic communication is not a process, but an identification—Gebser says it is telepathic.

The mythic consciousness is the originary model of oral communication (culture), but what we today call oral culture overlaps both contemporary magic and mythic cultures; because, according to Georg Feuerstein in Structures of Consciousness (1987) the magic cultures of today are not true magical cultures. The modern magical culture, what we call “primitive” culture, is “evidently capable of very complex symbolic thought” (p. 66).

Mythic Consciousness: Oral Culture

Whereas the magic structure of consciousness is “an expression of one–dimensional unity and man’s merging with nature,” (EPO, p. 66) the expression of the mythic consciousness is a two–dimensional, polar relationship between sound and silence, speaking and muteness, humans and nature. Because of the polar tension in the mythic consciousness there cannot be speaking without silence or listening. This is the polarity of the yin and the yang, “where each gives way to the other, yet each already calls forth the other as its complement—like night and day, female and male, listener and speaker” (Purdy, 1982). At the same time each can become its complement, meaning listener and speaker are interchangeable. And indeed, we do find a strong sense of turn taking in interpersonal communication.

In mythic India when a student (or disciple) comes to a teacher (or guru) to learn, a long period of time elapses (perhaps many years) where the student listens to the teacher without speaking. This first stage of the learning relationship is that of the “muni” (from the same root as mute), one who is silent and listens, as complement to the teacher’s speaking.

Myth is the closing of mouth and eyes; since it is a silent, inward–directed contemplation it renders the soul visible so that it may be visualized, represented, heard, and made audible. Myth is this representing and making audible: the articulation, the announcement, the report . . . of what has been seen and heard (EPO, p. 67). By soul, Jean Gebser means the psyche or self consciousness, the coming into awareness of the individual. Myth—orality—is the expression of the individual’s thoughts so they may be heard5. What any individual (not yet an individuated per–sona or ego) has made a part of his or her experience can be reported for others to share. The sharing is consummated through listening or empathy, as opposed to the sympathy or bodily attunement of the magic consciousness. The sense of empathy is also highlighted by the emphasis on heart. Myths are spoken by the mouth but received by the heart. Note this passage from Egypt quoted from Zulick (1992): “It is the heart that educates its owner in hearing.” Zulick also wrote that the Hebrews conceived “of the heart as the seat of the human mind and will.” However, this mind should not be confused with the rational mind of the mental consciousness.

Imagination developed along with the emergence of the mythic consciousness, and empathy is the imaginative attunement of our own world to the world of another. Through empathic listening we can “understand” the soul of another speaking human being. In our contemporary mental-rationally dominated worldview, however, we can still experience empathy (imaginative attunement) but only if we allow ourselves release from the grip of the cognitive (i.e., to know, as in visual perception), since thinking gets in the way of empathy.

In light of the above we can understand why discussions of empathy have become problematic in current communication literature. Mental-rational theorists (Greek, theoria, from Thea, goddess of spectacle; a view or perspective) say we aren’t sure empathy exists, since we can’t measure it. When mental-rational thinkers describe empathy it is more in terms of a “figuring out” what is on the mind of the other, rather than a mythic allowing oneself to imaginatively come into harmony with the other. The primary problem is that we have a confusion over the several notions of empathy. An in–depth understanding of empathy requires that we consider the psychic polarity inherent in the mythic—the essence of empathy.

For the most part Jean Gebser refers to speaking when he discusses mythic (oral) culture. The articulation of mouth is the articulation of myth. He is still, in some ways, a product of his times (1905–1973) reflecting the emphasis on the importance of the speaker as the focus of power in relationships. One place where Jean Gebser recognizes the importance of the listener is in the following passage:

[Words] become decisive . . . only when understood in conjunction with what was left unsaid. Only when the unspoken communicates its silent message does the spoken word convey the depth and polarity that constitute the tension of real life. Silence by itself is magical spell, and speech by itself mere mental-rational babble. The word has value, apart from (magical) power or (mental-rational) formula only where the speaker takes this interdependence into account. The attentive listener, moreover, will discern the affinity—perhaps not demonstrable—between “word” (Wort) and “value” (Wert) (EPO, p. 68).

Since the mythic consciousness is by its very nature polar, the speaker of myth is balanced or complemented by the one who listens to myth—one cannot be considered without the other. In the same polar sense the attentive listener will be discerning of both the said and the unsaid, the verbal and the nonverbal, the word and the value (in both the sense of “worth” and “principles”). As Algis Mickunas writes, “The polar rhythm is also manifest in that the hearer not only listens to the word but above all to that which remains silent—unspoken and merely hinted at. The word is thus a mirror of the inner mystery” (p. 181).

The articulation of mystery, the art of storytelling, is another way to affiliate our modern selves with the mythic world present in our everyday actions. Myths of journey, of great discoveries and adventures (from Odysseus to “Star Wars”) are as Gebser says “the collective dreams of the nations formed into words” (EPO, p. 68). We are rediscovering the telling of (and listening to) myth and the symbolic value of storytelling and narrative in communication as well as many other fields of study. We find symbolic projections of the mythic psyche arising everywhere. We are studying (and listening to) not only our own personal narratives, but the stories of every segment of society and culture. Black (African) Americans are listening to their mythic heritage—their polar, psychic pattern of communication—in the consciousness raising integration of the mythic into their modern world.

There has also been research in communication which takes the polar relationship of the listener–speaker into account. Consider the extensive study of turn taking, the tendency for speakers and listeners to alternate roles. Many of the clues as to how this process happens occur at the “level” of empathy and magical sympathy which merges listeners and speakers into a tightly woven relationship (as in a tapestry or quilt). There is an inherent reciprocity at work in all communication, usually lurking in the unsaid, just below the surface of the mental-rational exchange of information.

Mental–Mental-rational Consciousness: Literate Culture

Mythic consciousness mutated into the mental structure of consciousness: “the transition to the mental structure suggests a fall from time into space,” (EPO, p. 77), a move from the temporal action of oral communication to the visual space of literate communication. The mental structure emerged, around 5,000–8,000 B.C. with the rise of cities (Feuerstein, p. 92), it came into full flower during two periods in Western culture, 500 B. C. and 1500 A.D., and has held sway into contemporary times. Mental-rational consciousness refers to the one–sided development and distancing of man from his world through materialism and deficient scientism. I will use “mental-rational” to refer to the latest and deficient transformation of the mental structure of consciousness which was at its zenith by the late seventeen hundreds (circa 1790) (IEPO, p. 84). I will use “mental” to refer to the whole mental structure of consciousness (from about 5000 B. C. to the present).

Jean Gebser criticized the mental-rational development of the mental consciousness (Verstand) as Georg Feuerstein points out. “Verstand . . . denotes abstract analytical thinking as typically exercised in logic and mathematics;” Verstand is often today rendered as “understanding” which doesn’t “quite capture the original meaning” (Feuerstein, p. 119). The mental structure of consciousness “Vernunft, derived from the verb vernehmen (‘to take in’), signifies a pattern of thinking in which there is a marked degree of receptivity [my emphasis] to the ‘gut’ level of our being. It keeps in purview feelings, values, meanings, contexts, and so on” (Feuerstein, p. 119). This originary sense of the mental structure of consciousness is typically lost in the conceptualization of the currently dominant mental-rational structure; modern communication theory (and Western consciousness, in general) needs the receptivity and the fullness of the mental consciousness (described by Feuerstein) as a prelude and supportive transition to the emergent integral structure of consciousness.

In the mental structure Jean Gebser notes how “Man steps out of the sheltering, two–dimensional circle and its confines into three dimensional space” (EPO, p. 77). With three dimensional space comes an attendant externalization of communication in the material medium of the text. An abstract alphabet and literacy, as Marshall McLuhan (1964) suggests, were no doubt catalysts for the development of mental consciousness, although the first glimmer of mental-rational consciousness was shining forth long before literacy was a significant force. It is, however, no chance event that the first mental-rational, formal codifications of (rational) law were written.

Mental consciousness is first of all rational. It is three–dimensional, and with it arises perspectivity, the domination of visual perception, and “directed or discursive thought” (EPO, p. 75) as well as, measurement, abstraction, anthropocentrism, and temporality. Literacy, as sequential development of thought would not be thinkable without the visual, directed, goal–oriented nature of mental-rational consciousness.

Whereas magical consciousness is unitary, and mythic is a polar tension of complements which call and complement each other (listener/speaker), mental-rational consciousness is dualistic, i.e., constructed in opposites: up–down, right–wrong, mind–body, mental-rational–emotional, self–other, speaker–listener, etc. The duality of the mental is such that one side automatically excludes and is opposite to its paired term. Speaker and listener are separate and exclusive components of communication; there is an abyss, or gap, a distance between listener and speaker which could be considered part of the modern crisis in relations (fragmentation in postmodern thought). This gap is indicative of the mental–mental-rational consciousness which experiences communication as problematic. Communication today is defined as interaction (to act between), or transaction (to act across). There is, however, no problem of communication in the magic or mythic consciousness, the thought of a distance between communicants never arises.

Rational communication is problematic in that one must “figure out” how to identify with the other. Identification came naturally for magical speakers and was assumed for mythic communication (the indo–european root mu has the mythic polarity of declaration and silence). Mental-rational speakers confront an audience and must analyze how to bridge the distance between them (audience analysis). We must give responsibility back to the listener (in the 20th century) in order to provide balance to the communication act and to help heal the rift created by the rational distance.

In terms of mental-rational consciousness, listening would be thought of as a sequential, literate process like reading, as suggested by Don Rubin (1989). Listening, in fact, is perceived as a “passive activity” (strange contradiction). Mental-rational consciousness is indeed a speaker–dominated world. It is the speaker who has power, who can direct and control a situation. The polar identity of the mythic is not seen as an important element of communication. The rhetor is the one who speaks, who gives direction to the world. I have coined the phrase “missionary zeal” to represent the generalizable action of many individual communicators I see in my listening and interpersonal communication classes and in training sessions. In these exercises students/participants are to simply listen and understand the speaker; many have great difficulty staying quiet. They cannot listen without expressing an opinion. Like a deficient missionary they must speak and broadcast their view of the world to all. In this action everyone seems to need converting; no one escapes being told how the world must be.

Scholars tell us that the culture of our present time has not been primarily an oral culture—or at least wasn’t construed to be so until—and literacy with its visual–linear orientation has predominated. This is not to say that other cultures in the contemporary world, or parts of our own culture do not have oral characteristics. Indeed, subcultures and regional cultures thick with orality exist as an undercurrent to the primary wave of literacy in our time. However, as Marshall McLuhan (1964) Ong (1971), and others have suggested our times have been awakened to a new orality by the electronic media—Marshall McLuhan would say by electricity, itself. These scholars of the “new” or “second” orality, are offering signs of the integral world, but co–present with the emerging integral is the deficient underside of mental-rational consciousness, namely, out–of–control progress and high–tech mania.

Other elements of the mental structure of consciousness such as time (expressed in future–orientation, and deficiently as an obsessive preoccupation with schedules and progress, with no time for listening), and three–dimensional, linear space, leading to perspectivity and the separation of the subjective ego from an opposite objective, material world (discussed above in terms of the listener/speaker duality) demonstrate the problems that develop when society is driven by mental-rational consciousness. These elements along with the other characteristics of the mental-rational consciousness are evident in our technological civilization which dominates nature and other cultures (missionary zeal). The current predominance of the mental-rational makes the predominance of the integral (the next emerging structure of consciousness) tentative.


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