"The Pleasures of the Ear: Toward an Ethnography of Listening".

Author:Brady, Erika
Position:Responses to Previous Issues - Letter to the editor

Regina Bendix,

University of Pennsylvania, USA

Cultural Analysis, Vol. 1, 2000.


Collection and research on expressive culture had its beginning in scholars' deep and often emotional and sensory attraction to folk song, narration, and craft. Writing and print were the customary 19th-century media of learning and communicating knowledge, and the growing scholarly habit of screening out emotional vocabulary further impoverished our understanding of the sensory and sensual totality of experience. While students of culture have long since begun to critically examine their fields' legacies, the more intimate, affective linkage between burgeoning scholars and their disciplinary subject has not been fully considered. It is this implicit attraction and its marginalization, if not disappearance from scholarly purview, that contributed to the equal marginalization of sensory experience, affect, and emotion from ethnographic work. To comprehend the marginal place of what I would like to term an "ethnography of listening" (as one example within a larger ethnography of sensory perception), this essay sketches the implications of the successive exclusion of sentimentality and sensuality from scholarship concerned with folklore, before turning to a discussion of why such marginalization is increasingly untenable and how ethnographers are beginning to recover sensuality and corporality as a vital part of understanding expressive culture.


Erika Brady

Western Kentucky University, USA

"Listen!"--a traditional framing device for countless forms of verbal expression, and as it happens, an appropriate admonition to readers of this fine essay. In "The Pleasures of the Ear: Toward and Ethnography of Listening," Regina Bendix claims our attention with a voice both seductive and urgent. She stands in worthy succession to Hermann von Helmholtz and Ernst Mach, whose nineteenth-century experiments in sensory perception laid the groundwork for an ethnography of listening.

Bendix offers here an introductory fanfare, not a final "word." She invites us to examine both the historical implications and consequences of the tension between listeners' delight and investigators' objectivity, corporeality and textuality, in our ethnographic disciplines--and then calls on us to transcend these distinctions in our own work. I find irresistible the succinct summary of "reception, writing, and rapture" offered by Donald Brenneis, offering up a new primer to replace...

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