The lamentable decline of listening

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Director Gary Ross doesn't actually turn his cameras off during a climactic horse race in his new movie, Seabiscuit, leaving viewers adrift in darkness, but he does the next best thing.

In our culture, sight has become a kind of life-preserver used to make sense of the world around us, and Ross cleverly exploits that dependency. For nearly two hours, viewers have looked forward to the 1938 match race between Seabiscuit, the knobby-kneed bay colt and populist favorite, and War Admiral, patrician winner of the Triple Crown.

The camera zooms in on a red flag. It drops, the starting bell sounds, and they're off - and at this very moment, just as we are most eager to see pounding hooves, raised whips and jostling steeds, Ross abruptly pulls his camera away.

We are presented instead with a series of black-and-white vintage photographs of people around the nation listening to the race on the radio. In one, a middle-class family gathers in the living room, each with the hooded eyes and cast-down gaze characteristic of those who tuned in to the pictures in their minds. In another, men in the faded caps and working clothes of mechanics or gas station attendants are leaning against the fenders of a car as thin strains of the race are broadcast over the auto's radio.

Ross' camera trick is startling. It is maddening. And it may be the most authentic moment in the film.

Suddenly, it hits us: in 1938, there was no television, and cross-country travel was time-consuming and difficult. Except for the lucky few who lived in Baltimore and could make it to the track, most people were forced to envision the famous contest at Pimlico Race Course in their heads because they heard it over the radio. In one brilliant stroke, Ross re-creates that experience for an audience in 2003 and reminds us how much the world has changed in just 65 years.

As author Laura Hillenbrand writes in her best-selling book, Seabiscuit, on which the film is based, radio prices dropped significantly in the 1930s because of streamlined manufacturing practices. By 1938, 90 percent of U.S. homes had a radio, and an additional 8 million were installed in cars. Forty million people, including U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, tuned in to the great showdown.

How quickly the culture of listening has changed. Movie theaters, television, satellite disks and computers have created a world overwhelmingly dominated by visual stimuli, one in which we can watch a war as it occurs from the comfort of our living rooms.

We can see more now, so we don't listen as much - and that may mean a shift in how we experience reality.

Absorbing experiences

In the July 28 issue of The New Yorker, writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks explores how people who become blind after birth use their visual memories to "see."

Some stop constructing internal images except for when they dream, a condition that one man, John Hull, describes as "deep blindness." Instead, these people learn to rely on other senses, primarily touch and hearing. The result, Sacks writes, can be "a deep attentiveness, a slow, almost prehensile attention, a sensuous, intimate being at one with the world, which sight, with its quick, flicking, facile quality, continually distracts us from."

In other words, the eye anticipates. Part of the job of the visual brain is to think in terms of the future, of what will happen next. It roams around busily interpreting the staggering amount of data from light, color, movement and shape with which we are bombarded at any given moment.

As we read a book, we make any number of rapid-fire, largely unconscious calculations. We can tell at a glance how thick the volume is, how much we've already read and how many pages we still have to go. We know in advance when we near the end of a sentence or paragraph. Watch a horse race, and we can't help but measure the distance between where the horses are and the finish line.

Perhaps there simply are more pictures available for our brains to interpret than there are sounds, or perhaps we are wired to process visual data especially quickly and efficiently. Scientists do know that the part of our brains that deciphers optic signals is larger and more developed than any other part of the cerebral cortex.

Some think that when our brains translate aural input into sounds, they do so in a temporal fashion. It's as if each sound were a soldier marching in formation past a reviewing stand.

"When you hear, you need for the words to come out slowly," said Stuart Ewen, distinguished professor of film and media studies at Hunter College in New York. "Even if what you are listening to is silly or humorous, radio is a more contemplative medium than the television or movie screen, a more imaginative medium."

That's why, he says, some fans of the New York Knicks watch their basketball games on television while simultaneously tuning in the radio to the commentary of broadcaster Walt Frazier.

Seeing, on the other hand, flits about like a butterfly, first alighting on the man standing by your neighbor's desk, then on your steaming coffee mug, then on the green exit sign above the front door.

"Vision creates a setting instantaneously," Ewen says. "It is spatial and cosmological. In a world where visual communication speaks so quickly and eloquently and persuasively, the work of listening can become too hard for some people."

Vision can be a short-attention-span mode of thinking. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that the creation of a short-attention-span generation has occurred at the same time as the explosion of such picture-dependent time-thieves as the television. "We live in a society," Ewen says, "where the quick packaging of information is destined to bypass thought."

Ability to concentrate

What listening might lack in sheer quantity of data, it may make up for in spontaneity.

The hearing part of the brain always is in the present. Far more than the eye, it is capable of being caught off-guard, of being surprised. For purposes of comparison, listen to Garrison Keillor's monologues broadcast weekly on A Prairie Home Companion. There is no way to guess where the finish line is (unless the author deliberately telegraphs it) until the moment that Keillor actually crosses it.

Although A Prairie Home Companion is a rare exception, radio has been eclipsed as a form of information and entertainment by more visual media. The resulting shift in the traditional balance between seeing and listening may have consequences for our everyday lives.

Classical music critics have long lamented a decrease in a modern audience's ability to concentrate, to really listen to and appreciate complex rhythms, patterns and melody. For example, a form of group entertainment popular during our grandparents' generation - singing around a piano - is now far more likely to assume the form of a trip to the local cineplex.

Many critics cite this decline as a contributing factor in the crisis in symphony finances nationwide - a handful of established orchestras have gone under, while others are mounting huge deficits - during a decade when art museums across the U.S. are enjoying a surge in visitors.

The same phenomenon can be observed in literature.

It can be argued that poetry, which is meant to be recited, is written primarily for the ear, while fiction, which is read silently to oneself, is written mostly for the eye.

"When you write prose, the language is a screen and you're looking through it to see the information that lies beyond the words," says Daniel Mark Epstein, who, as a Baltimore poet, playwright and biographer, writes for both sensing organs.

"On the other hand, one of the classic definitions of poetry is 'memorable speech.' You do that by making it musical. You give it rhythm and rhyme and a vowel tone."

Such literary experts as Dana Gioia, a poet and head of the National Endowment for the Arts, warn of the precipitous falling-off of the general audience for poetry in the past half-century. No such hardship has afflicted the reading of novels.

The causes of these cultural shifts are varied, multifaceted and complex. But it is worth noting that they are occurring during the same period when we as a culture are becoming increasingly reliant on sight.

Too often we accept without question that a picture, indeed, is worth 1,000 words. As director Ross points out in Seabiscuit in a series of poignant frames lasting no longer than 15 seconds, sometimes the best way to "see" the world around us is by using our ears.

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