Syracuse Symposium 2013

Sirens, traffic, beeping, whirring, pinging, blaring TV: these are the noises that assault our ears every day. Perhaps we blank out so much of our soundscape because it consists overwhelmingly of gratingly mechanical and technological noise. The sounds of nature, in contrast, seem to draw our attention more readily to the complex interplay between sound and silence; to the way that silence frames sound, and vice versa. Noise pollution drowns out murmurs, music, the sound of the breeze, or of our own breath. The incessant din can deaden our capacity to hear the roar of the ocean or the rumble of thunder. This year’s Syracuse Symposium™ topic, proposed by the School of Education, addresses both sound and silence and uncovers some important distinctions between hearing and listening: hearing is passive while listening is a mode of cognition, one that demands a conscious act of attention. When we listen, our minds are engaged as much as our senses. We hear noise all the time; we rarely listen. The Symposium offers us the opportunity to do just that: to listen.

The two opening events discuss the ostensibly very different topics of negotiation and Buddhism. Yet both these events encourage us to silence not just external noise but also our incessant mental chatter. Listening, rather than talking or planning what to say when the other person finishes speaking, is a crucial dimension of the art of communication, and especially that of negotiation. Really attending to what others say to us is essential not only to our business and interpersonal relations, but also, on a larger scale, to our hopes for world peace. The session on “Engaged Buddhism” encourages us to become still and silent so that we can listen to the paradoxically soundless sound of silence itself. Perhaps surprisingly, this acutely concentrated form of attention, a retreat from the distractions of inner and outer noise, begins to ignite compassionate action. The Symposium series also focuses on those whose voices not only need to be heard, but also deserve the respectful nonjudgmental attention that inheres in the simple act of listening. As we will learn in Diane Ackerman’s presentation on The Zookeeper’s Wife, these include not just persecuted human beings but all that does not and cannot speak with a human voice--the animal kingdom and nature itself. The final presentations of the series deal with the interplay of speech and silence, first in a political context, in the case of Wadji Mouawad’s Scorched, and then in relation to the irreducibly aesthetic language of poetry in the work of Billy Collins.

These lectures and the diverse array of other symposium events related to the theme of listening show us how, by acts of careful attention, we can become more alive to the music and sounds of our lives. Instead of simply hearing an awful lot of noise we can attune ourselves to the myriad vibrations and voices that surround us. Crucially, in the context of humanities education, to listen is to learn.

Dympna Callaghan, William L. Safire Professor in Modern Letters and Interim Director of the Humanities Center

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