We are the builders of empty houses

The question is: why bother? Why create a site called As If You Were Listening and why employ a tagline like The Home of the Unheard? In fact, why persist in the act of creating any work whatsoever (written, visual, performative or otherwise) if, as the evidence suggests, there is no audience for it? After all, who would build a house in the belief that no one would ever move in?

Possible drivers for this apparently quixotic folly include:

  • A cloying, self-piteous desperation fuelling one last ‘breakthrough’ push
  • A vainglorious and deluded hauteur, shackled to a tiresome, outdated irony pose
  • A belief that cynically pitching to your sympathy will somehow make you notice me
  • A belief that you’re stupid enough to fall for such an obvious bag of cheap tricks

If I’m honest, I cannot entirely dismiss these unbecoming explanations. Regardless of what I tell myself about the purity and/or sagacity of my motives, I am also a human animal, a member of our social simian herd. I am both self-seeking and, to a degree, desirous of your recognition and approval. I maintain – as I’m certain many of you do – contradictory narratives of exceptionalism and ordinariness. At once apart from and a part of. Therefore, even if I am effectively voiceless in this noisy culture of ours I cling to the belief that I have something valuable to say; and, despite the accumulating strength of the case for not bothering, I will finish typing this sentence, belief suspended, still imagining that somewhere out there these faint signals may one day be detected.

True, there is a resilient ego at play – but also a calm acceptance; because, stepping back, it is abundantly clear that the vast majority of us will live out our lives more or less entirely unnoticed. We will have our loved ones and dear friends, our kith, our kin and so on, but the stats suggest that we will never breach the glass ceiling that separates us from the so-called stars. Our books won’t be read in a hundred years, our columns won’t be syndicated, our opinions won’t shape the discourse, and our insights will pass into the egalitarian blindness of forgetting. We are, and will most likely remain, the unheard.

Of course, we are still free to broil in righteous rage against the shape of the bell curve, and we remain at liberty to blame the system, rail against supposed injustice and bemoan our misfortune. If only, if only, if only. You’ve heard it all before and, God knows, I’ve spouted it a thousand times myself. However, of all the possible declarations we could make on the topic of our collective or individual anonymity, this is the most useless. The most self-defeating. The biggest waste of our time and energy.

Let’s face it, for every visible ‘success’ there are a billion unseen ‘failures’. (Yes, I have indeed employed the parentheses to draw attention to commonplace notions of success and failure, and therefore, to question their legitimacy. Beyond offering this as an excuse for ineptitude or any other shortcomings, I have done so in order to suggest that our culture principally delineates these things in terms of social visibility, quantifiable wealth and other trophies of status, and that by definition success is a minority achievement. After all, scarcity increases value.)

Clearly, I could be saying this to opiate myself. Maybe I’m just a ten-a-penny suburban crank, an armchair quarterback calling out plays that will never be put into action. Or, to be more specific, just another failed, middle aged artist with persistent delusions of grandeur. Like all the other self-promoting frauds on Facebook. Well-meaning perhaps, but essentially talentless.

The thing is, even if true, none of these punitive judgements matter anymore. Or rather, they are no longer crippling. No longer a source of disaffection or a fount of hollow excuse. Though they function as a form of devil’s advocacy – a psycho-emotional footnote and bulwark against complacency – they play no real part in my day-to-day process and have ceased to bolster the corrosive attitudes of entitlement and victimhood, or to drive the various dramas of self-loathing.          

Drilling down, I ask myself:

  • What does it matter if my currently stated equanimity is really disappointment and incompetence in disguise? Is all this clever huff simply a compensatory overlay intended to smudge the hard edged realisation that my writing is ‘kind of okay maybe’ and that my supposedly dazzling analysis and clever opinions are just so much ill-conceived tripe? And if so…so?

Objective truth notwithstanding, in the end we all adopt narratives of self that we think work for us, cobbling together our edifice of identity with a mix of incoming data and self-serving bias. In this context As if You Were Listening is simply an idiosyncratic bargain with a resounding silence.

Almost all of us who knuckle down to the rigours of making work or seriously refining our observations and insights must, in some way, deal with the fact of going unnoticed. With polite and tepid responses to our efforts and ideas. With rooms that don’t sing along, funding bodies that decline, punters who never show. The risk of wanting to be heard, in raw probability terms, is being blanked. Thus, many, maybe most, will opt to stop – and really, who can blame them?

To conclude, the energy for this enterprise is not rooted in stubborn refusal or trite post-modern affectation. Nor is it derived from a grudging capitulation to anonymity. For I have lately come to understand that the absence of audience is a nigh sublime liberation. To be unobserved is to be free from the reductionist strictures of crowd pleasing. It is, as the saying goes, dancing as though no one is watching.

Remove the pass/fail dichotomies of applause, sales figures and Google rankings and suddenly we are free to be exactly who we wish to be, to embrace fearless honestly, to go for broke.

Imagine we are all architects. Everything we build is predicated on the notion of habitation, constrained by mere utility or, worse, by the beige aesthetics of risk-averse consumers and their often niggardly budget ceilings.

Yet, if we were the builders of empty houses, we would be free to orient the rooms according to the most beautiful light. To shape the gathering quiet to a most pleasing form. To make the absence sing.

Forget posterity. Forget the critics and the vanity of classic-making. Success, if you want to call it that, exists in the infinitely regressing void of the now. In the typing, the brushstroke, the pirouette. We are inventors of empty spaces and we can fill them however we want. Because only the unheard are free to speak truly.

Words & images © Paul Ransom

PS: Yes, I am aware of the inherent irony of calling this site As If You Were Listening. You can make of it what you will. I chose it cos I liked it.

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