Essay written for a seminar I took this semester! I’m thinking of recording it as an audio essay after revising it, so its formatting is 90% MLA and 10% (tran)script at the moment. Feel free to share thoughts below, as this is a work in progress!
“I was gripped by a fascination that took place faster than any process of logical reasoning or conscious recognition could operate; I heard them before seeing any image of them, but immediately felt I should grasp them and pull their precious tones toward me, exploring what these tones had to say. It was something like romance, something like love, and yet nothing like either of these. It was an instinct that these voices would somehow caress my membranes and nourish my own plenitude.”
—Yvon Bonenfant, “Queer Listening to Queer Vocal Timbres” (79)
If I read this essay aloud to you, that probably makes it asexual, partly because I am asexual, but maybe also because I never shut up about it. If I were a famous dead writer, much of the ace community would be affronted, probably, if any of my writing wasn’t regarded as at least a little related to my asexuality. This thought is a little essentialist—I’m not just asexual—but I’m not sure I’ve written or drawn anything in years that I couldn’t trace back to my asexuality somehow. My baking, maybe, wouldn’t turn out much differently if I felt sexually attracted to other people.
So you’re listening to an asexual text, which, if anything, is ace because I’m saying it is. This claim is almost opposite to the intended focus of this essay, which is asexual listening. Regardless of what I write here, though, even focused on listening rather than speaking as I am, this text itself is an act of speaking, an asexual performance. You may or may not be listening to it asexually. It’s something to consider.
What is asexual listening? Or, phrased differently, what does it mean to listen to something asexually? For the next twenty minutes or so, I consider these questions, offering potential definitions for asexual listening as well as practices such listening might include. I compare these definitions to the kind of queer listening and feeling described by scholars like Yvon Bonenfant, Airek Beauchamp, and Maria P. Chaves Daza. The work of these scholars doesn’t explicitly reference asexuality or note ace people to be included in the definitions of “queer” that they use, so I’d like to pull at their threads a little—experimentally—in order to explore the implications they hold for the theorizing of a group of listening practices or descriptors that are specifically asexual (or could be called asexual, anyway).
I’m stuck on this idea because it’s real in my head: the love I have for listening to certain texts is an asexual one, and it is a love that I feel asexually. The link is there, maybe even a chain of them. Somehow, this chain is important, and somehow, I vibe with it. When I listen, these links shake. I’m attempting, with this essay, to mimic their rattle.
[Sound effect between sections: TV static, maybe]
A list of definitions for consideration: asexual listening happens whenever an ace person listens to something. Asexual listening happens when anyone, asexual or not, listens to something with a critical lens trained on that sound’s asexual possibilities. Asexual listening is queer listening that predominately uses an ace lens. All listening could be called asexual if we emphasized the manners in which it is intimate and distant at the same time, similar to touch, but making a different kind of contact with the body. All listening is asexual, especially if what’s being listened to is recorded, or synchronous, but mediated by cell phones and distance. All listening is asexual, especially if what’s being listened to is fifteen feet away.
In “Enacting Queer Listening, or When Anzaldúa Laughs,” Maria P. Chaves Daza sets out to explore the relationship between her teaching pedagogies and recordings of Gloria Anzaldúa’s voice, or between Anzaldúa and her audiences. She attempts to trace out the ability of Anzaldúa’s voice to do things like build “affective connections between [Chaves Daza] and other queers of color” and “[spark] a recognition and validation of [Chaves Daza’s] being” via “its tactile material aspects.” Anzaldúa’s voice, even recorded, is a thing with the ability to both literally and metaphorically touch listeners, to come into contact with solid bodies via vibrations in a manner that could be described with concrete data or the vocabulary of affect studies. As Airek Beauchamp writes: “Sound Studies tells us that we should trust our ears as much as our eyes, justifying our trust in sound, and of the resonating body. Affect Theory goes further, saying that all senses play into a body that processes input through levels of response, experience, and anticipation.” Chaves Daza, in her descriptions of listening to Anzaldúa, draws on the latter’s methods, writing, for instance, that “[Anzaldúa’s] nervous, silly laugh–echoed in the laughs of her audience–reaches out to bring me into that space, that time. Her smooth, slow and raspy voice–her vocalic body–touches me as I listen.” In this essay’s epigraph, Yvon Bonenfant describes a similar kind of listening: it is “something like romance, something like love, and yet nothing like either of these” (79).
Chaves Daza and Bonenfant refer to such experiences as instances of queer listening, a mode of listening that “listens out for, reaches toward, the disoriented or differently oriented other” (Bonenfant 78). Through queer listening, queer people seek out and find each other, or sounds that might be interpreted as queer, or interpreted queerly. Chaves Daza describes queer listening with a slightly heavier focus on speakers themselves, arguing that it “takes seriously the power that bodies have to make sounds that reach out of the body to touch queer people and queer people’s ability to feel them” (Chaves Daza). If I haven’t used the term “queer” enough in somewhat cyclically describing queer listening here, I might write, a little more clearly, that queer people speak queerly, and queer listeners queerly queer their queer sounds.
I’m joking a bit here, but I do so in hopes of gesturing in the direction of the vagueness queer listening can take on when described with only words. As Beauchamp writes: “[m]y articulation of affect with sound studies is necessarily queer, as it rejects binaries and speaks without definitive vocabulary, syntax, or grammar” (“Live Through This”). This is necessary because, as Chaves Daza notes, “[a]ffective phenomena do not rely on textual or linguistic acts to communicate but instead are networked intensities of impulse that connect the individual body-mind to the bodies-minds of others.” It’s difficult to find the language to describe exactly those parts of communication which aren’t language. Beauchamp writes, in fact, that he can only describe such experiences as sonic tremblings, writing that “it might just be in endurance that I can best articulate tremblings as a sonic, somatic, affective phenomenon.”
“Our bodies’ materiality, a site of constant unfolding, engages with the world via a series of shimmers and impulses–such as the synesthetic vibration I am calling sonic tremblings—rather than with concrete events or objects in and of themselves. These tremblings, always intersectional, encompass past lived experiences, social and cultural constructions that restrict interpretation, and interpretations falling outside social or cultural codes. I understand the trembling body as both processor and producer of sound, a connection of trembling nodes eschewing the patriarchal structures of language.”
–Airek Beauchamp, “Live Through This: Sonic Affect, Queerness, and the Trembling Body”
That so many theorists locate the queerness of queer listening in the body or body-mind interests me: I’ve spent much of my life feeling detached from my body as an agender, aromantic, and asexual person. I spent high school exploring the things my body didn’t feel more than the things that it did. When Chaves Daza refers to “the power that bodies have to make sounds that… touch queer people,” of “queer people’s ability to feel” such sounds, I wonder at her use of the term “power” and the phrase “ability to feel.” Of course, Chaves Daza isn’t just referring to the ability to feel sexual or romantic attraction: queer listening, for her, is not unlike Audre Lorde’s concept of the erotic in that it can involve feelings traditionally considered sexual and feelings that haven’t. Still, Chaves Daza’s phrasing here implies that it’s quite possible to not have the ability to feel queerly, to hear the queer. She’s likely right: people who aren’t queer themselves, perhaps, don’t have this ability, or don’t have it to the extent that self-identified queer people do.
Queer listening could certainly include asexual, aromantic, agender listening, a method of listening that doesn’t only feel but also pointedly doesn’t, or doesn’t according to popular conceptions of what it means to feel. Queer listening could consist of experiences akin to modes of attraction beyond the sexual or romantic, experiences aesthetic, platonic, sensual, alterous, intellectual, emotional. It needn’t involve physical touch or literal trembling (which isn’t to say that all aces don’t experience, want, or desire such things). There’s a place for the asexual here, but it’s not necessarily a central one. Bonenfant’s, Chaves Daza’s, and Beauchamp’s conceptions of queer listening don’t foreground the absence of feeling so much as its presence. It’s a fair move, but it’s also one that draws me to add to their theorizing. It leads me ask a few questions:
- Could asexual listening be a subsidiary of queer listening, or is it different enough to be its method or area of study?
- How could specifically asexual listening affect listeners, speakers, or the systems in which they act?
- How can we describe listening without metaphors that centralize feelings of physical touch, especially those that are sexual and occur between normatively imagined couples?
- Who can perform asexual listening in the first place?
In a short essay like this one, I can hardly address all of these questions, but I’d like to propose that asexual listening could be an intriguing object of inquiry for others to explore, either in a more scholarly sense or more casually or personally. For the remainder of this audio essay, then, I’d like to offer a few methods by which ace listening could potentially be defined.
1. Asexual listening is queer listening that predominately uses an ace lens.
Or maybe a more auditory term would work better here. Ace listening could simply be a form of queer listening that’s specifically tuned into a sound’s asexual possibilities, a subcategory that exists alongside parallel others: lesbian listening, trans listening, bi listening. Such a family tree, though, could unhelpfully split queer listening into types based on identity in a manner that regards the “queer” in queer listening as meaning LGBTQ+ rather than an allusion to the acts of queering performed by queer theorists. In the latter sense, queer listening is less focused on LGBTQ+ identities or experiences than methods of listening that are themselves queer in their resisting, circumventing, or deconstructing of more normative methods of listening.
How could an ace lens or perspective be added on to such a process? How could that lens be used, and how might it exist spatially in relation to the (here) larger concept of queer listening? Perhaps asexuality is a specific channel to which queer listeners could tune their radios, and doing so would involve merely focusing on those aspects of a sound that could be somehow read as asexual. Or maybe ace listening is queer listening that listens specifically to sounds composed by asexual creators, or queer listening whose predominant concern is similar to those of asexual activist movements. Maybe it’s simply queer listening that makes a point to include (or attempt to include) ace possibilities, people, experiences.
Of the four definitions I offer here, this one feels like the weakest, possibly because my use of the phrase “ace lens” doesn’t clarify how queer listening is being modified to suit acer purposes. Here, ace is less a descriptor for listening than a potential focus of study. Such a focus likely doesn’t merit the use of “ace” as an adverb to describe specific acts of queer listening: it’s not describing a method so much as a series of objects that that method could deign to gaze on.
Let’s think of it as more of a method, then.
2. Asexual listening happens when anyone, asexual or not, listens to something with a critical lens trained on that sound’s asexual possibilities.
Here, asexual listening is comparable or equivalent to asexual literary and cultural criticism, perhaps an ace criticism that looks specifically at (or listens to) auditory objects for analysis. Ela Przybylo has written a list of potential features of such criticism in a short piece on “asexuality as an interdisciplinary method,” positing that
“an asexual method, lens or perspective (1) questions dominant norms of relating, loving, kinship and intimacy, (2) diversifies sexual options, experiences and lifestyles, (3) challenges, in some capacity, schemes of the medicalisation and pathologisation of sexual lack, (4) exposes the constraining force of the sexual imperative and sex liberation rhetoric and crucially (5) insists on the legitimacy, viability, positivity and possibility of absence or low levels of sexual attraction, desire, arousal or pleasure” (194).
Przybylo argues that such an ace method “offers an entirely unique and transferable perspective to sex and sexuality studies interdisciplinarily understood,” useful in that scholars of sound studies, affect theory, and other fields might utilize or modify it for their preferred purposes (194). If the method she sketches out here is unique even among those already used in queer studies, ace listening might be different enough from queer listening to merit its having a separate title and, along with that title, journal issues, edited essay collections, or full-length books devoted specifically to practicing it.
In other words: when I listen to a sound, I may not be trying to queer it. I might, instead, be acing it, whatever that verb could imply.
Or maybe it’s not so intentional. If everything I write could be called asexual (because I am asexual and often write explicitly about asexuality or feel that my asexuality influences the very manner in which I perceive the world), maybe any action I perform is ace, as well, and I’m (always already) listening asexually to every sound I hear.
3. Asexual listening happens whenever an ace person listens to something.
This definition, too, could go a few ways. It could be that asexual listening is indeed a method, a specific type of ace criticism, and it just so happens that I enact that method almost instinctually: it’s one of my survival skills as an ace person, one I’ve been honing since my discovery at the age of seventeen that people could be asexual at all. I think of myself as ace even before then, though, and not all ace people use similar methods of listening or criticism to the one Przybylo describes, intentionally or unintentionally.
Asexual listening could just consist, then, of an ace person listening to something, anything at all. Instead of a series of methods with common attributes that might be grouped into one larger method, ace listening could be delightfully disparate. Every ace person could perform or imagine it differently, and ace listening theorists could relish that variety, even see it as essential to attempting to define ace listening.
Ace listening could be a matter of pride, of embracing the differences in listening that might be perceived between ace and allosexual (not asexual) people. I think here of the many jokes I’ve heard (or, well, in this case, read online) wherein ace people refer to their tendency to “miss things” when others reference sex (or wherein aromantic people “miss” others’ allusions to the romantic). I think of that one scene in Ouran High School Host Club where Haruhi Fujioka realizes a year after the fact that a boy who asked her to “go” with him meant dating, not heading outside (“Operation”; fig. 1). When her friends accuse her of not taking the proposal seriously, Haruhi says (in the English translation of the anime), “No, you see, I didn’t realize that’s what he meant at all…” For the brief length of this dialogue, the stereotypical light of an interrogation room shines on her, and her friends stand around her in police uniforms questioning her about her unintentional “crime.” Maybe such “missteps” are byproducts of a listening that’s ace or aro in its “failure” to comprehend others’ allusions to sex or romance. Maybe such disconnects aren’t failures so much as byproducts of differences in communication. One of ace listening’s central practices might even involve emphasizing that rhetoricla situations like Haruhi’s aren’t failures so much as one of many ways rhetors can (and frequently do) miscommunicate with each other.
Such an approach isn’t unlike Alison Kafer’s reaction to those who imagine a utopian future occupied only by the able-bodied. Kafer describes one imagining as follows:
“[O]nce I made it to graduate school, I had a professor reject a paper proposal about cultural approaches to disability; she cast the topic as inappropriate because insufficiently academic. As I prepared to leave her office, she patted me on the arm and urged me to “heal,” suggesting that my desire to study disability resulted not from intellectual curiosity but from a displaced need for therapy and recovery. My future, she felt, should be spent not researching disability but overcoming it” (2).
According to such a perception, Kafer writes, “a future with disability is a future no one wants, and the figure of the disabled person, especially the disabled fetus or child, becomes the symbol of this undesired future” (2-3). Kafer seeks to replace such future visions with “a politics of crip futurity, an insistence on thinking these imagined futures—and hence, these lived presents—differently” (3). She yearns, she says, for “an elsewhere… in which disability is understood otherwise: as political, as valuable, as integral” (3). Ace listening, too, could be political, valuable, and integral, and critical thought revolving around its practice could attempt to map out the manners in which it is.
Alternatively, I might be Susan Stryker, speaking to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix. Her descriptions of her life as a transsexual woman (to use her terminology) resonate with me: I asexually listen to her say, “I live daily with the consequences of medicine’s definition of my identity as an emotional disorder,” and I think about hypoactive sexual desire disorder (Stryker 249). “Through the filter of this official pathologization,” Stryker tells me, “the sounds that come out of my mouth can be summarily dismissed as the confused ranting of a diseased mind” (249). She doesn’t deny any similarities between her body and that of Frankenstein’s monster. She writes, “[t]he transsexual body is an unnatural body. It is the product of medical science. It is a technological construction. It is flesh torn apart and sewn together again in a shape other than that in which it was born” (Stryker 245). Like Frankenstein’s monster, she says, “I am too often perceived as less than fully human due to the means of my embodiment” (Stryker 245).
There is much I could say here about my own asexual, aromantic, and trans body, about feeling useless, prepubescent, or broken in its lack of either a sex drive or sexual attraction directed towards others. In regards to listening specifically, it occasionally experiences flashes of cold when other bodies near it talk of dating or sex acts, feeling a sense of loss for an unfelt feeling. When it listens to its favorite podcaster mention asexuality by name, it flips its shit. Joe Jukes has written that “to grow up ‘asexually’ is to be immersed in the language of sex, or rather to ‘surface’ from that immersion and come to know one’s foreign relationship to a sexual-tongue. To live is to have fluency assumed and to exist under sexua-linguistic forces that aim to ensure one’s fluency.” When Jukes speaks, their “engagement with sexuality’s grammar is subject to mispronunciation, slippages in syntax, and perhaps a limited vocabulary,” and their “language is one of necessary in-betweenness.” The sexual world Jukes describes here doesn’t only necessitate that ace people navigate it in order to speak: fluency in a “sexual-tongue,” if we call it that, requires listening skills, as well.
I could take pride in this necessity for navigation. When Stryker is told by others that she “war[s] with nature,” she says, “I find no more reason to mourn my opposition to them—or to the order they claim to represent—than Frankenstein’s monster felt in its enmity to the human race. I do not fall from the grace of their company—I roar gleefully away from it like a Harley-straddling, dildo-packing leatherdyke from hell” (246).
When I feel childish upon missing a dildo joke, I might roar gleefully back to my apartment on my 33-inch-tall pink Razor scooter, feel bad in my journal for a while, then watch Gray’s Anatomy with my cat until we fall asleep holding each other. It’s markedly better than sex.
[Sound effect: maybe the theme music for Gray’s, or a line of its idiosyncratically melodramatic dialogue]
4. All listening could be called asexual if we emphasized the manners in which it is intimate and distant at the same time, similar to touch, but making a different kind of contact with the body. All listening is asexual, especially if what’s being listened to is recorded, or synchronous, but mediated by cell phones and distance. All listening is asexual, especially if what’s being listened to is fifteen feet away.
Some lines from an essay I published ten months ago:
“I can only define my aromanticism through facts. For instance: I’ve never liked dates with other people. I can only like Wolfgang if he isn’t actually there. When I think about dating, my fingers get shaky. I’m immensely gay for Griffin McElroy’s voice. Every other part of him is secondary” (Bougie).
“I’ve been listening to The Adventure Zone, a Dungeons & Dragons podcast. I listen to it while I run, cook, and shop for groceries. I listen to Griffin McElroy announce that he is my Dungeon Master, my best friend, my a/romantic non-/lover” (Bougie).
“I’d like to kiss a man. I’ve never done it. It sounds spectacular. It sounds boring. My favorite form of intimacy is the dream.” (Bougie).
The way I envision it, attraction is cyclical for me, and it never stops moving. If I want to express my interest in someone, I need to proclaim my desire to fuck them, then note that that desire is metaphorical and not literal, then question whether that’s true or not, then decide that it is true, then question it again. I love podcasts and audiobooks for the manner in which they appeal to my desires, a/sexual and a/romantic and never-ceasing as they are. The people I listen to are here with me, and they are not, and I want them closer, and I do not. Their voices touch me, but they aren’t literally touching me, although that might not be true: their vibrations drift into my ear, and I tremble in response. Their voices touch me, but I’m standing alone in my kitchen, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Is that asexual? Is that asexual even if I’m not asexual, as well?
Ben Harley has argued that “[s]ound is, by its very nature, intimate. It enters our ears and bodies, it resonates in our chests, it puts us into the mindset of others, and it breaks down borders between individuals.” It’s not necessarily intimate in a sexual sense: “contemporary scholarship on sound serves to demonstrate the different ways in which it is intimate: communally, cognitively, emotionally, psychologically, and materially” (Harley). Still, for Harley, “sound’s intimacy is its power—its closeness makes it impactful.”
I’d like to argue, in contrast, that sound is both intimate and not, especially when the sound in question occurs over distance. If sound is similar to touch, it is also different in that it touches differently, if the touches of audio are at all comparable to the brush of physical objects or beings. Beauchamp’s description of sound’s movement parses that difference out expertly: as he writes,
As soon as we create a sound wave with our phonation apparatus, it moves out of us. It is, at least in a generative sense, over. But until it decays and is used up, the wave moves outward from us. Other humans may perceive that wave; indeed, they perceive a complex temporal sequence of waves. By the time it reaches them, it is completely ‘gone’ from its source of origin. The sequence was fabricated by a living body and carries a unique imprint of that body. Yet it is literally disembodied.
Asexuality isn’t equivalent to distance between bodies or a lack of feeling, but I’m fond, still, of the idea of listening itself being asexual. If touch is associated with intimacy, I’d like a sense of my own. What if touch wasn’t privileged over sound as it occasionally is? I’ve heard others describe music as a warm hug and as orgasmic–sounds that sound like touches. I want a touch that feels like a sound, contact with another object or being that is intimate and distant at the same exact time. I want to feel like I am loved and like I have my own private, impenetrable space.
For me, all listening is asexual, but I may just feel that way because I, too, am ace. See the above definition, then return this one, then go back, then return. It might be that ace listening is all of these proposed definitions, or my movement between them, or yours.
I’m not sure that I have one. I’d rather this essay stand, I think, as a question mark. Any of the above definitions for ace listening might be practiced, developed, or modified. Much of these ideas could apply to aromantic listening, as well–and it’d be interesting to find places where aro and ace listening might diverge. I like the idea that anyone can listen asexually, of encouraging people who aren’t ace to do so, but I might just be wishing they’d acknowledge asexuality’s existence a dash more. Conversely, I like the idea that only aces can listen asexually, that it’s a special power only some people have, a small group of which I am a part. Mostly, I want Griffin McElroy to keep mentioning on podcasts that his DND character is asexual. I want to grin at his voice, which is right there in my ear and not in my ear, and I want to rewind and reply it repeatedly. I’m listening to a recording, so I can.
In closing, I offer the following meme. (If you’re listening to a recording of this essay, I’m about to paint a word picture of it.)
Beauchamp, Airek. “Live Through This: Sonic Affect, Queerness, and the Trembling Body.” Sounding Out!, 14 Sep. 2015, https://soundstudiesblog.com/2015/09/14/sonic-tremblings-sound-affect-queer-body/.
Bonenfant, Yvon. “Queer Listening to Queer Vocal Timbres.” Performance Research, vol. 15, no. 3, 2010, pp. 74–80.
Bougie, Constance. “Meet the Writer who Turns Aromanticism into Prose.” Aromantic-spectrum Union for Recognition and Advocacy, 17 Feb. 2020, https://www.aromanticism.org/en/news-feed/meet-the-writer-who-makes-aromanticism-into-prose.
Chaves Daza, Maria P. “Enacting Queer Listening, or When Anzaldúa Laughs.” Sounding Out!, 28 Sep. 2015, https://soundstudiesblog.com/2015/09/28/15957/.
Harley, Ben. “Sounding Intimacy.” Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics, vol. 2, no. 2, 2018, pp. 41-50, http://journalofmultimodalrhetorics.com/2-2-harley.
Jukes, Joe. “Speaking Sex: Asexual Perspectives on the Language of Sexuality.” AZE, 1 Apr. 2018, https://azejournal.com/article/2018/4/1/joe-jukes-speaking-sex-asexual-perspectives-on-the-language-of-sexuality.
Kafer, Alison. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Indiana UP, 2013.
“Operation Haruhi and Hikaru’s First Date!” Ouran High School Host Club. Nippon Television, FUNimation Entertainment, 18 Jul. 2006.
Przybylo, Ela. “Afterword: Some Thoughts on Asexuality as an Interdisciplinary Method.” Psychology & Sexuality, vol. 4, no. 2, 2013, pp. 193-194.
Stryker, Susan. “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage.” GLQ, vol. 1, no. 3, 1994, pp. 237-254.