If you are not deaf, you might know someone who is. The admirable Gallaudet Research Institute gives some statistics: ‘if everyone who has any kind of “trouble” with their hearing is included then anywhere from 37 to 140 out of every 1,000 people … have some kind of hearing loss, with a large share being at least 65 years old.’ Any writing and speaking hopes that readers and listeners are both generous and curious about people who are similar but different. The hope, similarity and difference are key to communication, which starts from the optimistic expression of our human need for others. There is no such thing as a private language, whether written or spoken. Yes, writing isn’t always read, and speaking isn’t necessarily heard properly, but pessimists don’t see the point of trying.
What is it like to be a bit deaf? Firstly, it is normal – for me. We all take our sensory perception – good or bad – for granted. Compared with a dog, even the most sharp-eared of us have hearing loss. Compared with the 80-mile stare of a vulture, the best of us are partially sighted. (OK, human beings are not like animals, not least because of our extraordinary capacity for imaginative identification. You are perhaps doing it right now: what is it like to hear through someone else’s ears?) And mystics through the ages have tried to point out that sense data is not the same as what we have come to think of, purely out of habit, as reality. In The God Delusion (London: Bantam Press, 2006, pp. 405–6) Richard Dawkins goes for a strikingly odd metaphor that defines the limits of human perception as what we can see through the opening of a burqa. Science, he says, opens up the window so wide ‘the imprisoning black garment drops away almost completely, exposing our senses to airy and exhilarating freedom.’ In Cambridge we have the excellent and PR-savvy ‘edutainers’ the Naked Scientists, but they wisely conduct their exciting and explosive experiments wearing fully protective if admittedly non-Islamic clothing.
In my sound-muffled world I often notice other people can hear what I cannot: conversations in noisy places, quiet actors in plays, questions in meetings, a television turned down, an alarm clock, a door bell, children’s voices in school assemblies … So I tend to think about hearing when I guess most people do not. I try to sit near the stage, or when I teach I am mobile and go round the room to where people ask questions. I make sure I stand or sit to face someone who is talking to me – cues from the shape of their mouth help me a little to hear what they are saying – the sound becomes partly visible, even though only between 30 and 40 per cent of sounds are visually distinguishable. According to Wikipedia, ‘“where there’s life, there’s hope” looks identical to “where’s the lavender soap?”.’
But deafness is not, so to speak, black and white. Some people are ‘profoundly’ deaf, the same way some people are completely blind. Others, like me, are less affected, in ways I hope are extensible to a broader understanding of media and communication in general.
Sometimes I try to guess what percentage of a conversation I have heard, but the meaning of a sentence isn’t based on percentages. For example, if I hear someone saying to me ‘The —— sat on the mat’, I’ve only missed 16.66 per cent of their words. With what I imagine is a good chance of being right I supply cat. But our speech-acts are so compulsively and wonderfully creative that dog or even banana may well be the real answer. I try to respond intelligently, but if I then talk about cats my conversational partner will consider my understanding nearer zero per cent than 83.33.
If my brain tries to supply missing words this can be disconcerting for me and the person I am talking to (if I let them know what I am thinking) because I am in fact free-associating or projecting only what it is I think they have said. This is a kind of surrealist computer program that converts speech into Monty Python sketches. For example my piano teacher rang me recently to tell me that after more torrential rain she was going to be late for my lesson because ‘the slugs had blocked the path’. After a request to repeat what she said I could hear no difference. I privately wondered if she was hyper-anxious about slimy creatures, or if the conditions had made the slugs much bigger than usual – I was imagining slugs so big they were impossible to get round. When I asked her casually about it later, she told me the river had risen right over the footpath, so it had been blocked by floods.
My theory is that men find puns funnier than women because men’s language cognition tends to be more goal-directed, less emotionally convergent, so the pun hijacks the meaning (the goal) to a new absurd and remote place. Some men enjoy the affective disconnect of puns and absurdity generally because they are a holiday from empathy. Maybe it helps (?) that men’s hearing tends to be less responsive to the higher frequency ranges of the voices of women and children. But a joke should be like sex, something for two people both to enjoy – and the distortion of what somebody says usually only makes one person laugh. Even though human communication is often based on repetition/mirroring or regular blips of reassurance (someone listening on the phone: ‘No … yes … I see … mm …’), I don’t like to repeat back to people what I heard because if I get it wrong – my reason for checking – they might think I am taking the mickey.
Another strategy is changing the subject – a new and tangential topic avoids understanding too closely. I also tend to talk too much so I don’t have to listen. And I talk loudly too, trying to add energy to those I would like to speak louder. I confess my fallback position is a ‘Mm’ and a nod, perhaps a wry smile that could mean either ‘I am happy for you’ or ‘I am sad for you’. None of these are good, but I promise you people let me know fairly swiftly the limits to the number of times I can say ‘Pardon?’.
My hearing aids are ugly and useful if disappointingly non-cyborgian. Perhaps in the future they will indeed give me bionic powers. The styling is c. 1998 iMac – entertainingly parodic translucent plastic. They are digitally programmed to boost, differently for each ear, deficit frequencies. For me these are above 3000 Hz; fricatives s, f, v, z, h, ʒ and θ are in this range, so sausage and forest (for example) might sound similar – some people speak more clearly than others. They aren’t as good as ears at filtering signal from noise: when I go to see a play, someone turning the pages of a theatre programme three rows back will sound loud. There are different settings: the default is equalized to compensate for noisy backgrounds; there is a directional setting that doesn’t make much difference; there is a listening-to-music program that is useful at classical concerts. The T setting takes an audio feed direct from a mic – it doesn’t amplify ambient sound. I can sometimes even pick up – when no one else can – the person with the mic whispering or muttering. My experience is that many of these T loop systems don’t work, so my thanks to all those places that check their installations from time to time.
Owing to the wonders of the UK National Health Service, my hearing aids and batteries are free. ‘Going private’, though, for a rather less visible ‘in-ear’ pair will cost upward of £2500. I wonder what the manufacturing cost is – I have seen estimates of $100. I am astonished that an iPod with substantially more features will be on sale for 10 or more times less. I can only assume the hearing assistance industry thinks that compensating for human anxiety and sense of loss is an opportunity to make large profits. I can see that a personal and professional service, particularly outside an intimidating hospital setting, is reassuring and helpful, but I feel sorry for those who have (rather than choose) to pay this amount. As the enormous cohort of mobile phone users gradually shifts into the ‘seniors’ demographic we may perhaps find major digital products manufacturers will make hearing-assistive devices for them, and prices will fall. There are plenty of technical opportunities for convergence with smartphones; even now, in a not particularly technologically advanced market, if I spend £140 on a bluetooth device I can play music from my phone or receive calls direct into my hearing aids. But the sound system on many newish cars can connect, cable-free and with minimal set-up, with smartphones. Perhaps the numbers of bluetooth-aware deaf people and the comparatively slow turnover of devices doesn’t justify the design costs – but then high prices and minimal upgrades of technical features are bound to slow down the rate of device replacement.
Hearing loss is – as we might expect – invisible. Jacques Derrida’s Memoirs of the Blind, however, is an account, based on many works in the Louvre, of sighted artists’ images of blindness. But how can we convey the sound of deafness? The ecstatic and angular final works of Beethoven (such as the late string quartets, the Diabelli Variations and Piano Sonata no. 32 in C minor, op. 111) are astonishing achievements in abstraction and testaments to the visuality of musical composition, but how would a hearing composer denote a deaf world? Perhaps they can’t and don’t need to, for if the human sensorium is a gestalt, and a change in one part of it changes the whole, we might expect that when one door of perception closes another opens: blind poets and musicians from Homer to Stevie Wonder have been celebrated and admired. Perhaps their courage and intensity of truth-saying is something we – sighted or not, deaf or not – might learn from as we all try to make the best of our limitations and losses.
Those, at least, are some of my meditations to myself about hearing. The last sounds, below – and sights – go to Beethoven. Thank you for listening.