Jonah Weiner has argued in Slate that the podcast is friendlier than the book. We experience the super-abundance of audio blogs, he explains, differently from our bedside book stacks. Tomes evoke a Sisyphean obligation. "Podcasts, somehow, are different. I just tallied up the 53 unheard episodes sitting in my podcast library, and, doing so, felt none of the guilt, dread, or FOMO that, say, my clogged Instapaper queue can inspire in me." Instead, he smiles at the thought of "53 ways to feel like I'm being productive with my time while I'm wasting time."
Weiner's comparison of podcasts and books recalls Jim Gaffigan's comparison of movies and books: "You ever talk about a movie with someone that read the book? They're always so condescending. 'Ah, the book was much better than the movie.' Oh really? What I enjoyed about the movie: no reading." But it's not simply the laboriousness of literacy that makes books a weariness to the flesh. Walter Ong has argued that print culture conveys the wearying inescapability of human presence to—humans. "The presence of man to himself over the face of the globe is basically a presence of the word," Ong observes, adding that we feel this word most in our media. "Today lettered words thrust themselves up like shouting monuments not only in the cities but along country highways as well, and are inscribed in the heavens by skywriters." In contrast, humans in oral society were "scattered in tiny isolated populations which had lost memory of each other's existence." Books and magazines and newspapers contribute to what Ong calls "hominizing" the creation, that is, our "entering into possession of the world, filling it up, becoming the active focus of more and more of its operations." I am myself a bibliophile. I spend every birthday gift card in the codex section of Amazon. But even I have to admit that books bear our smudge and share our smell in a way that the podcast, with its dear freshness deep down things, does not.
Gerard Manley Hopkins' imagery, so tactile and olfactory, contrasts sharply with Ong's notions of how we privilege the visual above our other bodily senses. This modern sensorium has long worried scholars like Ong for reasons he detailed in The Presence of the Word and many other books. The visual spatializes and silences the creation, reducing it to a set of objects, which encourages us to construe the world methodically (usually with lots of charts and arrows) not conversationally (with tropes and stories). Consequently, the visual disinclines us from listening to each other or to God. I'd like to ask in this essay whether the rise of the podcast in the past few years suggests a sensorial shift—and what this shift might mean for our public lives and theologies. Digital media tend to evoke anxiety in us, as suggested by the rise of anti-distraction discourse. (You've no doubt seen those tersely titled books, Distracted, Rapt, Mediated, Focus, and The Shallows.) But does the viral popularity of podcasts like Sarah Koenig's Serial suggest a reorganizing sensorium today? Does it evoke new possibilities for shared concentration and mutual involvement?
Weiner thinks so. Podcasts are as intimate as that subtlest and most wearable of technologies, the earbud. Screens induce guilt (I shouldn't be looking at this while I'm driving), whereas earbuds evoke a more decorous mode of diffuse attention. What makes digital audio so acceptable in public life, despite its tendency towards alienating individualism? (I mean, given the free choice between what's in your headphones and what's in the world around you, you'll go for the earbud 87 percent of the time, right?) Weiner traces the attractiveness of podcasting to "the form's special sense of intimacy and even its erotics: the dulcet phonemes of Jad Abumrad, issuing into us from earbuds snugly nestled into our heads." In Ong's phenomenology, these erotics entail one person non-violently but insistently sharing interiority with another. Not surprisingly, then, podcast fans like Weiner see in mediated audio near wondrous possibilities for empathy. Noting our inclination to entrust ourselves to people's voices, Weiner argues that podcasts are both consoling (not least when we find ourselves dislocated by travel) and capable of pushing "us outside of a blinkered comfort zone" so that we grasp other people's experiences "with a different kind of nuance and immediacy than print can muster." That voice in your ear, so sexily immanent, inclines you towards empathy in a way that the detached, carefully curated voices of broadcast journalism, announcing the latest Boko Haram atrocity, do not. Morning Edition's Robert Segal and his flawless Standard American dialect may occasionally draw our sympathy. But This American Life's Chana Joffe Walt's verbal clutter and vocal fry woo us into identification and empathy.
Well, sometimes they do. Voices can also evoke unthinking dislike, as I learned in my straight-out-of-college job as a Gulf Coast radio show host. I remember cringing every time the light flared on the in-studio phone. Great. Yet another call about my unsanctified voice. As a Michigan transplant to Florida, I was asked to eradicate my nasality. Why? Perhaps because that particular quality was too heady, too intellectualist, by regional standards. And then, in a quirk of providence, I migrated back to the Midwest in order to teach speech in Chicago, the City with Big Nasal Cavities.
But I've had an easy time of it in comparison with the women hosts of my favorite podcast, DoubleX Gabfest, a show I often listen to while vacuuming the house on Saturday mornings. Any misplaced pride in my dudely household-choring is frequently chastened by these witty progressives—most frequently, Hanna Rosin, Noreen Malone, and June Thomas. Perhaps my favorite was their "Broadscasting" episode, where they discuss the snark that women's voices frequently evoke in listeners. In the show, Invisibilia podcaster Alix Spiegel notes that listeners frequently despise her voice, and Rosin observes that contempt for your voice sometimes entails contempt for you, too. A person's voice somehow lets us be dismissive of her or him in a way that the face does not.
What was disconcerting about this conversation, at least to me, was its implication that although podcasts can be warmly, empathically, even erotically personal, they can also be strangely impersonal. I shouldn't have been surprised. This combination of sensuousness and distance actually characterizes the voices of the most popular podcast hosts. Re-listen to Serial or This American Life or Explain Things to Me or Radio Lab NYC, and you'll hear voices at once intimate and detached. They are sensually close to listeners, indwelling earbuds with quirky, idiosyncratic voices, informally paced, breathily um-cluttered, tentatively inflected. They seem to have bypassed any interpersonal gap, having achieved a kind of immediate access to the listener's psyche. But even so, their uncanny proximity is offset by being in earshot of things that are not at all about the listener. Attentive to the incongruous, the weird, the singular, these podcasts decenter the listener in the cosmos. And they do so in voices pitched flatly, sounding at once wryly curious and perpetually unsurprised.
There is a gratifyingly broad range of vocalities in the podcast universe—from Ira Glass' comfortable nasality to Hanna Rosin's brassy bluntness to Jad Abumrad's elvish quickness. But for all this idiosyncrasy, there is a disconcerting uniformity. As Weiner notes, if you're a podcasting addict, you're probably not listening to voices shaped by the stridency of the ideological right or the ethnically diverse. You're probably listening to the voices of white progressiveness, a point that not only Weiner but also Jay Casper King has described as a shortcoming in the politics of podcasting. But King's critique of "White Reporter Privilege," well taken as it is, locates the ideology of white liberalism while missing something even stranger: the speedy mobility and shareability of the podcasting sound. I think rhetorician Eric Jenkins might call this podcasting's modality. "Modes are collective, emergent phenomena," he explains, "that express the circulating energies of contemporary existence rather than re-presenting the interests of particular rhetors." What may be most important about podcasting's current modality is not the pale progressiveness of podcasters so much as the spreadability of podcasting's intimately impersonal affect.
But talking about modalities is conspicuously difficult. We might try the language of Michael Polanyi's tacit dimension to account for how audiobloggers indwell an indeterminate but materially participatable frame. We might talk about Pierre Bourdieu's notion of habitus. Or we might borrow Gilles Deleuze's distinction between abstract and virtual realities, distinguishing between the static ideological particularities of a podcaster's own identity and the affective energies that propel podcasting's innovation. But however we name the real but only barely palpable comportments that discipline and drive the podcasting sound, we are clearly dealing with a different sort of materialism than the Enlightenment naturalism that Ong criticized.
Ong's discussion of aurality is most effective as a critique of a Newtonian worldview that spatializes the world, and the persons within it, reducing everything to objects. But this critique is less helpful for explaining the weirdly diffuse collectivity of podcasting, its speediness, placelessness, pathos, and tweet-ableness. As Korean podcasts such as SeoulPodcast or African American podcasts such as Denzel Washington Is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period gain popularity, they will no doubt alter the ideological place of the podcast. But at least for the for-hearable future, their voices will have to chime with this detachedly erotic modality in order to alter it.
This impersonal intimacy raises questions about the ethics of empathy that Weiner hopes could improve liberal democracy and which Ong, in another, more theologically informed way, hoped would prepare late moderns for hearing the divine. I think I agree that podcasts can invite identification, which in Kenneth Burke's formulation means enabling a kind of rhetorical consubstantiation, a sharing of substance between speakers and hearers. But the podcast's dependence on voice inevitably adds to this intimacy an impersonality arising from the simple social fact that some substance is unshareable. Sounds, in particular, confront us with qualities that we simply can't abide, even when we can't explain our distaste.
This recalcitrance came through to me with special vividness in a Gabfest DoubleX discussion of online misogyny. Here's my transcription of Noreen Malone's question about the seeming impossibility of consubstantiation with online trolls:
Previously before Gamergate and, you know, Reddit and 4chan occasionally pop up in the news as enacting horrible things and I sorta read those news stories, but they are not a part of my everyday life. Is this responsible of me to just say, "OK, These are not my people," and I can sort of compartmentalize them over here and say, "Well these men are horrible. It doesn't affect me"? Or does it affect me?
The question is a hard one because it locates the limits of everybody's favorite words: identification, empathy, communication, dialogue. Podcasting does achieve empathy—but only against a backdrop of massive inter-tribal aggressions. In response to this predicament, Ong's observation (again in The Presence of the Word) of "the curious irenic tone" in contemporary rhetorical exchange sounds quaint some 50 years on. He hopes "that through the reorganization of man's worldview, enforced by development in the media, some kind of new prospect of peace and understanding is indeed dawning." Yet today, even in a world in which dialogue is touted constantly, the sad tribalizing of our tongues makes us push our earbuds in deeper.
Perhaps this is an occasion for what Stephen Webb calls "the acoustemology of the church." How, in other words, does God sound? If Ong is right to say that our technology has fostered a kind of religious deafness, the church is called to build publicly accessible acoustic spaces for hearing the divine. The Gospel's narratives offer a starter, especially in the narratives about the post-resurrection Christ. The Jesus biographers record conversations with tear-blinded Mary in the cemetery garden, with Peter and the bleary-eyed fishermen on the beach, with Cleopas and company on the road to Emmaus. In each case, Jesus speaks intimately, but in a voice so strange that no intimates recognize him. We might even say that Jesus offers the two disciples on the road to Emmaus a first-century version of the intimately impersonal podcast. There's an abruptness to his appearance, and an unfamiliarity—not unlike your experience putting on a pair of headphones to join a vigorous program in progress. With a brisk, avid proficiency, Jesus explains the whole of available Scripture, making the truth about God's life for the world manageably, accessibly coherent. And like podcast listeners today, the disciples, when talking about it later, described a richly affective involvement with Jesus' speech: "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the Scriptures to us?"
But as we mull over what to say to cyber-misanthropists, perhaps the resurrected voice of Christ offers less of an ethics than an eschatology of voice. Chana Joffe Walt noted in that "Broads-casting" gabfest referenced earlier that the great challenge of audio performance (in a world of voice-critics at best and voice-haters at worst) is to sound like yourself. But the paschal mystery means that our selves have not fully arrived yet. If we could hear ourselves as we will be, might we not be struck by a resurrection strangeness in our voices? And how might we conjugate our future voices presently using the vocal folds we do not yet fully have, the larynx whose length we have not felt, articulating the sound no ear has yet heard?
Think of the strangeness and the familiarity of Jesus standing in that Emmaus dining room. Perhaps as he shifts the supper loaf from hand to hand, he repeats his upper room words: "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them right now." And then he tears the bread and is gone. But the ensuing absence is not a withdrawal, an escape, like many of us are tempted to in encounters with despoilers of democracy or sinners in church. This going leaves no grievous sense of gap. Instead, like every communicant at Eucharist, Cleopas and his friend take up the bread, take up the Christ. This Word they hold is a strange materiality, neither Newtonian nor Deleuzian, but a mediation sometimes audible as word, sometimes graspable as sacrament. Here is real presence in an acoustics of peace, no less than intimate, quite more than personal.
Craig Mattson is professor and department chair of Communication Arts at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois, where he also serves as Honors Program Director.
1. "What Makes Podcasts So Addictive and Pleasurable?" Slate (December 14, 2014). www.slate.com/articles/arts/ten_years_in_your_ears/2014/12 /what_makespodcasts_so_addictive_and_pleasurable.html.
3. The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (Yale Univ. Press, 1967).
4. www.slate.com/articles/podcasts/doublex_gabfest/2015/02/the_women _of_invisibilia_strangers_and_this_american_life_on_the_doublex.html.
5. King, " 'Serial' and White Reporter Privilage," The Awl, November 13, 2014. www.theawl.com/2014/11/serial-and-white-reporter-privilege
6. "The Modes of Visual Rhetoric: Circulating Memes as Expressions," Quarterly Journal of Speech, Vol. 100 No. 4 (November 2014), p. 443.
7. www.slate.com/articles/podcasts/doublex_gabfest/2014/10/gamergate_ kelli_stapleton_witches_double_x_gabfest_discusses.html.
8. Stephen H. Webb, The Divine Voice: Christian Proclamation and the Theology of Sound (Brazos Press, 2004), p. 27.
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