These Books About How to Evaluate What You See and Hear Have Never Been More Important

Damon Krukowski's "Ways of Hearing" is a fitting successor to "Ways of Seeing," the influential book and TV series

Laptop with headphones

Can a book change the way we think? I don’t mean that in the sense of a reader’s opinion or ideology shifting—of course the right literary work can do that. But can a book rewire the brain itself, literally changing the way one particular mind perceives and interprets the world around it?. The most convincing argument that this is possible might be the way that William Shakespeare’s work helped change the boundaries of both psychology and the English language to a previously unimaginable extent. The second best argument might be John Berger.

Berger’s book Ways of Seeing has been altering its readers’ perceptions of media since its 1972 release—as both a television series and a book. Media literacy remains an ongoing concern around the globe; some governments have even launched programs to give their residents more tools with which to interpret and evaluate all that they encounter online, in publications, and on television.

Ways of Seeing (the book) opens with an introductory passage, letting the reader know what’s coming: seven essays, three of which consist entirely of images. “Our principled aim has been to start a process of questioning,” write Berger and his collaborators. (Before the title page, a note describes Ways of Seeing as “A book made by John Berger, Sven Blomberg, Chris Fox, Michael Dibb, Richard Hollis.” Berger’s name alone is on the spine and cover, and it was he who wrote the television version.) In a look back on Ways of Seeing published earlier this year, Vikki Bell and Yasmin Gunaratnam cited Berger’s “style of blending Marxist sensibility and art theory with attention to small gestures, scenes and personal stories.” Earlier this year, writer and theorist James Bridle wrote that “his landmark series showed how art revealed the social and political systems in which it was made.”

Ways of Seeing offers its readers (or viewers) a means to examine art that doesn’t require a host of advanced degrees to understand. But Ways of Seeing doesn’t simply confine itself to the fine-arts wing of the museum, so to speak. Instead, it also explores how these visual motifs and themes have turned up in modern media—especially advertising. There’s certainly a discussion and critique of advertising and contemporary media taking place here—but that’s not where Berger begins. 

Media literacy is more important than ever, and Berger’s book continues to be an invaluable resource.

In an era where online hoaxes abound, partisan media entrenches itself, and incorrect information is spread for the lulz, media literacy is more important than ever—and Berger’s book continues to be an invaluable resource in this capacity.

In one of the essays in Zadie Smith’s recent collection Feel Free, she discusses the impact of Ways of Seeing on her life, as well as that of her late father: 

…for a generation of non-experts, working-class aesthetes, generalists, TV viewers, anxious gallery-wanderers, Berger offered a long-overdue process of demystification. He urged us to throw aside the school-taught sensations of high-culture anxiety and holy awe. They were to be replaced with a fresh and invigorating mix of skepticism and pleasure.

Ways of Seeing has also spawned a legion of descendants—something that’s hardly shocking, given that the state of media in 2019 doesn’t entirely line up with the state of media in 1972. The aforementioned James Bridle, author of the fascinating and ominous New Dark Age, is behind a de facto sequel to Berger’s book, New Ways of Seeing, which aired on BBC Radio 4. As someone with a background in music writing, I’m particularly interested in author and musician Damon Krukowski’s own take on Berger’s work. Krukowski has brought his wealth of experience—he’s the author of several works of poetry and nonfiction, and has been a working musician since his days in the dreampop band Galaxie 500—to a book that pays homage to Berger’s original: Ways of Hearing

Like its predecessor, Krukowski’s Ways of Hearing is also based on a work that first appeared in another medium: in this case, a six-episode podcast. And while the title and overarching themes line up with Berger’s work, there are also aspects of it that line up more closely with its broadcast medium, including interviews with author/musician Jace Clayton, Vanishing New York author Jeremiah Moss, and members of A Tribe Called Quest. 

What soon becomes apparent about Krukowski’s approach is its breadth: while he’s writing about sounds and music, he’s also sensitive to larger trends and moments in history that may have impacted them. Early on, Krukowski addresses how technology influences how we hear. As one might expect, he also addresses questions of digital recording and sonic manipulation. But not long after that, Krukowski talks with historian Emily Thompson, who talks about the invention of the decibel meter in the 1920s and the ensuing efforts to regulate noise in cities—which in turn led to things like the acoustic design of New York’s Radio City Music Hall. From there, Krukowski addresses how acoustics are perceived, something that has ramifications for everything from opera halls to earbuds. 

Here, Krukowski is taking a holistic approach to questions of, well, how we hear. It’s not simply enough to say that one format or design is “better”—instead, it’s useful to address how each one was formed, and what each was trying to convey. Like Berger in Ways of Seeing, Krukowski is willing to explore the larger ecosystems he’s writing about, and making bold comparisons between seemingly disparate entities. 

As with Berger, there’s a sense of interconnectedness in Krukowski’s exploration of listening. It’s not enough to simply tell anecdotes or relay interesting sonic devices. Instead, this is a book about providing its readers (or, in its podcast form, its listeners) with some grounding to ask their own questions about their own listening. What might be gained or lost from a particular method of recording or broadcast? What historical conditions might have played a role in the creation of this style of music or this genre? 

Like Berger in Ways of Seeing, Krukowski is willing to explore the larger ecosystems he’s writing about.

A great deal of writing about listening to music (or listening, period) boils down to arguments about format (LPs good, streaming bad—or vice versa), unlikely success stories (cassettes are back!), or discussions of the ethics of royalties (self-explanatory). All of these are understandable, necessary conversations to have—but Krukowski is after something more with his book, just as Berger was with his. Krukowski’s work here is about imparting critical thought processes to his readers: it’s as much Ways of Thinking About Hearing as it is Ways of Hearing.

Attempting to simply replicate Berger’s work is one thing, but doing so doesn’t necessarily make for a worthy follow-up to Ways of Seeing. Berger’s approach is a subtler one: it’s one that carefully builds a foundation for its argument before it segues into that argument’s implications. Rhetorically speaking, it doesn’t always line up with current trends in media. One can only imagine the headlines: “This One Weird Trick Unlocks the Aesthetic Secrets of Modern Advertising!” And it’s notable that Berger largely confined Ways of Seeing to a particular canon of art, rather than a more global view of it—though there’s also a difference between citing the visual approach that became influential for a particular culture and endorsing the history that led to that point. Paradoxically, Krukowski’s book ultimately succeeds as a worthy successor to Berger’s in the ways that it differs from its predecessor. Listening isn’t seeing; why should a book about one unnecessarily echo a book about the other? Krukowski gets more right by charting his own territory than he would by more closely following Berger’s blueprint. 

These two books ultimately resonate on a similar frequency. The key seems to be in finding the right structure to get at the larger points: for some, it’s a series of visuals; for others, it’s a blend of interviews and other notable sounds. And it’s a solid illustration that the influence of Ways of Seeing can’t necessarily be boiled down to a formula, but can be very effective in grappling with contemporary questions. These are books that are edifying to read, but their ultimate importance is as a kind of first step. These are toolkits as much as they are tomes, and in an era where understanding the deeper questions found below numerous ongoing debates, they’re an essential part of media literacy. 

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