From a Modern/Colonial Sensorium to Relational Response-ability: Listening Into What Separation Has to Say
Dedication – to life cut on the sharp side of separation
I dedicate this essay to the heartbreak on the sharp side of the sadness of separation. Every pulse and river that has been silenced by insensibility to life’s gifts of companionship and cries for care. Every species, kind, and gender sentenced to death for their illegibility, unprofitability, their queer intimacy with the mysteries and reciprocities of creation. Every relation of every victim of every scale of every act of extraction, enslavement, genocide, ecocide, epistemicide, and linguicide that is committed by the white colonial capitalist heteropatriarchal human West.
Species loneliness as sensibility
In Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Wisdom of Plants, Potawatomi botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer writes:
it has been said that the people of the modern world suffer a great sadness, a “species loneliness” – estrangement from the rest of Creation. We have built this isolation with our fear, with our arrogance, and with our homes brightly lit against the night. (Kimmerer 2015: 358)
And elsewhere in this book:
I suppose that’s the way we humans are, thinking too much and listening too little. Paying attention acknowledges that we have something to learn from intelligences other than our own. Listening, standing witness, creates an openness to the world in which the boundaries between us can dissolve in a raindrop. The drop swells on the tip of a cedar and I catch it on my tongue like a blessing. (Kimmerer 2015: 300)
The sadness that Kimmerer writes about has been with me from childhood, long before I could name it. I grew up on land nestled between the Appalachian Mountains and Atlantic Ocean in what is currently called the United States. I lived in houses brightly lit against the night on streets with lamps that shone even brighter on asphalt and concrete that taught us soil was dirty. Our elders, who were not so experienced, told us to wear shoes to protect us from earth that stained the shag carpets they worried would not come clean and from the pavement, which was booby trapped with shards of glass scattered by teenagers who smashed beer bottles on the ground from boredom. My mid-Atlantic suburban neighborhood sounded specific. Long freight trains rumbled through it on schedules that supplanted circadian rhythm. Telephone wires and passenger planes buzzed overhead. Something was always letting off steam and toxic scents from the car factory down the road. In the summertime, lawn mowers. In the autumn, leaf blowers. Twice a day, white children like me chattered and bullied each other on corners where yellow buses collected and returned us to and from an hour ride to inner-city schools; we knew we were late for desegregation when we heard the hydraulic doors closing before we arrived. The same children squealed when we turned up flint arrowheads in the mud, and it was not because we were touching the agony of the Lenni Lenape people who had been driven off the land by English colonizers three hundred years before. Dogs on tethers barked, and their owners shouted apologies. Seagulls came at dusk and, because we were far from the sea, I always assumed their screeching was an alarm. Sometimes we heard a hawk cry. Every seven years cicadas would come, the males filling the air with songs they sang by flexing their muscles, rubbing their ribs together, seeking continuance. No one was related to anyone. And when I snuck out my bedroom window into the dark woods behind my house to soak ancient starlight into my skin, I knew what Kimmerer means when she writes that “listening in wild places, we are audience to conversations in a language not our own” (Kimmerer 2015: 5). I felt something righter in relation with the sky. But I also ached to be able to hear what I felt the living land around me, which I knew was not silent, must be saying.
Forty years and eight thousand miles later, I am still aching and, so, writing. About how relational sensibility is the soil of interspecies love, care, and co-existence – a queer, decolonial, spiritual-political “art of living on a damaged planet” (Tsing, Swanson, Gan and Bubandt 2017). About why people of modernity are insentient to the living world of which we are extensions and to our place with/in this relationship. About how the ways we have learned to experience reality filter our capacities to sense, perceive, make sense of, and relate with others-in-relation through violent logics of stasis and separation. About how, through this distorted sensibility that separates knowing from body-land, we perpetuate colonial violence (Watts 2013). In this essay, I share vignettes of what becomes possible when we listen through a relational sensorium that both gestures and yearns towards attuning with the sounds, vibrations, rhythms, frequencies, timbres, and languages of metabolic life itself. One that helps us sense our complex and often contradictory connections with the stories the earth tells, the lessons it teaches, and the wisdoms it keeps in our own bodies, places, and times. One that makes it so we are never far, either, from the suffering we cause through our complicity in epistemicide, genocide, and ecocide. How do we learn to listen otherwise together, at the end of these selves, this knowing, this world as we know it, for signs of the life with which we are so entangled?
How come some people don’t hear the earth?
There is nothing new here. This question is the rhythm of an older, planetary catastrophe of the colonization of the senses that has been happening for centuries. Indigenous scholars and guardians of the earth, non-Indigenous scientists and philosophers, ecologists and environmental policy makers, interspecies ethicists and communicators, artists and spiritual-political practitioners have been responding to it for decades. In 2019, addressing a Canadian audience while wildfires raged in Brazil, Ninawa Huni Kui (Chief of the Huni Kui people of Brazil and President of the Huni Kui Federation of the State of Acre) gave a talk entitled “The Amazon Forest is screaming.” In it, as the organizers describe below, he named the root cause of this crisis of co-existence.
Record-breaking forest fires, irreversible biodiversity loss, exponential deforestation, atypical floods, droughts and extreme weather, toxic substances in the soil and the water, harmful carbon trading practices, illegal invasions of protected territories… When and why did we lose our capacity to sense and respond to these and other pressing threats to the possibility of continued life on the planet? (Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures 2019)
The following year, the Waorani land and rights activist Nemonte Nenquimo wrote an open letter to Amazonian and global leaders about the toxified, violated, and burning forest, telling them it was past time to listen. “When you say that you are urgently looking for climate solutions,” she wrote, “yet continue to build a world economy based on extraction and pollution, we know you are lying because we are the closest to the land, and the first to hear her cries” (Nenquimo 2020). Robin Wall Kimmerer tells beautiful and yearnful stories about how humans of colonial modernity have “forgotten how to listen to plants” (Kimmerer 2019) and to speak and hear the “grammar of animacy” (Kimmerer 2012) and thus have become insensible to our nonhuman relations. Zoe Todd, a Canada and UK-based Métis anthropologist and Indigenous Studies scholar, following Blackfoot scholar Leroy Little Bear, shows how both vital scientific information about ecocidal violence and wisdom of how to survive it are lost when even the humans who are seeking to make change cannot ask other species what they think or know how to listen for their responses (2021). And in a recent reflection on multispecies learning, US-based professor of education Iveta Silova mourns how modern education in Cartesian binaries that sever culture/nature, human/nonhuman, mind/body, male/female, and self/other “hyper-separate” us from the intelligences, communications, and needs of all other beings, asking “if nonhumans can speak, will humans learn to listen?” (Silova 2021).
Trials in human–nonhuman translation
They can, and do, and some people are trying. Yet these efforts often take the same human-supremacist, human-centric, capitalist, and “white empiricist” relations with knowing that we are called to refuse (Prescod-Weinstein 2020; Todd 2016; Watts 2013). I am thinking of the prolific projects to design technologies that convert nonhuman beings’ sounds into sonifications that human beings can hear, but not necessarily as relations. Bioacoustics scientists and artists study how plants sense vibration – how they listen, share information. We identify the sounds that xylem and phloem make as they circulate through trees’ bodies. We know what kind of noises trees make when they are stressed. We attach electrodes to mushrooms and mushrooms to synthesizers and dance to music we produce from the pulsing energetics of their mycelial exchanges. We say that the fungi sing; there is an app – PlantWave – that will stream their songs through your smartphone. Astronomers make recordings of electromagnetic waves between Saturn and its rings, and of sound waves that are emitted by a black hole 250,000,000 light years from the Earth, and translate them into sounds that humans can perceive (which, for example, in the case of the Perseus Cluster’s black hole, is a b-flat note 57 octaves below middle C, or “one million, billion times lower than the lowest sound audible to the human ear!”) (NASA 2003). Musicians transmute statistical data of trends in global climate change and biodiversity loss into scores played by jazz bands and orchestras, creating frenetic crescendos of global warming and relentless decrescendos of insect populations’ extinctions. And yes, the panic is palpable; something sinister travels through these data-notes of how “capitalism,” as Black feminist love evangelist Alexis Pauline Gumbs argues, “is a sound, it is a crowding sound, creating a static sound of panic within me about the scarcity of life and about how I’m alone” (Gumbs 2022).
This work does things. It brings our attention to how much is sounding and resounding below and beyond the human frequency scale. It widens wonder about who and what else is communicating in other dimensions of reality, other types of reality, other realities. When art and artful, it sometimes even activates our desire and capacity to relate with the energy of the wider web of life to which we belong. But it also limits listening to a physiological capacity that is thought to be located within individual human ears and brains, separated from our constitutive relationality. As if we do not hear from the whole through bone, skin, nervous system, and immaterial sensualities. US ecologist and philosopher David Abram reminds us of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s insight that, while “synaesthetic perception is the norm, we are unaware of it only because scientific knowledge shifts the center of gravity to experience, so that we have unlearned how to see, hear and generally speaking, feel, in order to deduce, from our bodily organization and the world as the physicist sees it, what we are to see, hear and feel” (Merleau-Ponty 1962 cited in Abram 1997: 45). Here is the imprint of ecological and life sciences that “have not only been deployed to colonize land, but also to colonize our imaginations” and “evacuate all other ways of knowing the living world, most especially those local and Indigenous knowledges that are attuned to the sentience of land and bodies” (Myers 2017: 77), that come from and are inseparable from the earth (Watts 2013). Here is the erasure of Indigenous peoples’ knowledges and struggles, the diminished reality that reinforces reliance on the same disenchanted, human-centric, transactional, consumptive, and extractive modes of listening we are called to unlearn. We can (re)learn to listen below and beyond these sensual and perceptual filters and captivated imaginations. But how do we attune to the abundant signs of life that this way of being negates and denies?
Tuned out of the animate Earth
It is not only difficult for people of modernity to imagine that we can, as Abram writes, cultivate a “renewed attentiveness to the perceptual dimension that underlies all our logics, through a rejuvenation of our carnal, sensorial empathy with the living land that sustains us” (Abram 1996: 50). It is impossible, from within the dominant ways of knowing, to notice, not a matter of taking alternative perspectives but enlivening a sensibility that is calibrated to relate with living forces and beings in other modes of reality. This is why, as Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate scholar Kim Tallbear argues, “interspecies thinking needs Indigenous standpoints” (Tallbear 2011) – yet also why many non-Indigenous interspecies thinkers do not engage respectfully, responsibly, or reciprocally with Indigenous ways of knowing and why much western critical and queer ecology remain disconnected from and often harmful to Indigenous struggles for land, lives, and rights. Because nonhuman sentient, intelligent, and animate existence is ontologically real, not metaphorical. Because as Canada-based Brazilian educator, Indigenous and land rights advocate and professor Vanessa Machado de Oliveira reminds us, metaphors, dreams, and stories are living “entities that visit and move things in the world, in nonlinear time: they are stories that world the world” (Machado de Oliveira 2021: 45). Because, as Cree professor Cash Ahenakew and colleagues write, the world is not reducible to what we can know or say of it, as through Indigenous sensibilities “knowing literally comes from the ground, above, and beyond, from the wisdoms of continuous metaphysical engagements and familiarity with ‘all our relations’” (Ahenakew, Andreotti, Cooper and Hireme 2014: 244). Because we are always already in relation with beings who are not alive in the way Western multispecies thinking defines this, including “objects” and “forces,” and because not everything is alive in the same way. Because these relations are, as Tallbear says, “complex and not romantic” but “relationships in which human and nonhuman persons, and nonhuman persons between themselves, harass and trick one another; save one another from injury or death; prey upon, kill, and sometimes eat one another, or collaborate with one another” (Tallbear 2022). Because life communicates not only in material and immaterial forms, but in wider ways that are inaccessible to the modern-colonial imaginary. Because nothing about the ways we sense, perceive, and make sense of reality – including how we listen – is separable from or inconsequential for the quality of our relations with/in the earth’s living metabolism that we are extensions of and responsible for.
The stickiness of sensuous modernity
We will not find our way simply by listening harder, better, or more through sensorial and perceptual faculties that have evolved to recognize and sustain modernity. Listening is not a neutral response to sonic stimuli. It is a constellation of material and immaterial properties that, in relation, organize the forms that forces can and do take, including one’s own receptors. It is a worlded and worlding activity, which makes it possible for me to relate as such – a whole-soma, trans-sensual, synaesthetic, trans-corporeal, im/material interchange between bodies in the world. Ways of listening are configurations of faculties and practices that heighten and sharpen, dampen and distort our “receptivity to meaningful solicitations” from each other and the more-than-human world, shaping what is available to me as real and as a relation and what must remain insensible in order for a given world to exist (Abram 1997: 16; Ahmed 2006, 2007). Just as certain ways of being require and foster certain ways of listening, certain ways of listening allow us to sense and relate with certain ways of being. And, as US-based ethnomusicologist Emily Clark notes, “different histories of listening to human and nonhuman others and perceiving what they sound like have shaped relations of power, domination and resistance, as well as modes of dwelling peaceably across human difference and with the nonhuman environment” (Clark 2021: 6). Those that are specific to preserving settler-colonial futurity have “rendered more-than-human sentiences so illegible, and so impossible to perceive” (Myers 2017: 77).
People of modernity suffer from what we can think of as a “modern/colonial sensorium,” the fiber that enfleshes colonial violence with/in our sensibilities. “Sensorium” is a word for an organism’s “entire perceptual apparatus as an operational complex” that allows it to experience and participate with the world (Bull, Gilroy and Khan 2006: 5). This somatic concept is inspired by another more epistemic one, the “modern-colonial global imaginary” (Stein and Andreotti 2017: 175). Social imaginaries are “shared meaning-making matrices that produce accumulated effects” on thinking, feeling, and relating (Stein and Andreotti 2017: 3). Like all imaginaries, the modern/colonial one is geographically and historically specific, a “contested and contingent but ending racial colonial ‘matrix’ of power that materially and symbolically orders both social meanings and relations according to a global imaginary premised on a singular trajectory of space and time, with the West positioned as the geographic center and the apex of liner human progress” (Stein and Andreotti 2017: 177). The elements of this matrix that mould and filter our faculties for listening include:
a racialized hierarchy of humanity; teleological, Euro-supremacist notions of human development and history; transcendentalization of both the nation-state and the capitalist market as institutions that, even as they may be critiqued and reformed, are accepted as the best of all possible modes of social, economic, and political organization; possessive individualism, and property ownership as the basis of personhood and worthiness; a strictly binary and heteropatriarchal gender and kinship system; objectification and exploitation of ‘natural resources;’ and the universal value of Western reason. (Stein and Andreotti 2017: 3)
Widening the map of this imaginary to its embodied, transcorporeal, and sensorial dimensions helps us see how it shapes and is shaped by “sensory and perceptual regimes of looking, listening, smelling, tasting and touching” as well as spiritual and relational capacities for sensing and perceiving time, space, place, and immaterial forces of existence in different dimensions and scales (Duggal and Hoene 2021: 904). The modern/colonial sensorium is a “sensory regime of empire,” an apparatus that has evolved to calibrate our perceptions of reality with/in the violent premises of the modern/colonial imaginary. Its premises are:
white heteropatriarchal human supremacist. that only human beings and certain human beings – white, straight, male, rational, able-bodied, economically productive – elicit meaningful solicitations. that only human beings and certain human beings are relations, capable of relation and relationally significant. that nonhuman, other-than-human, dehumanized and de-vitalized beings, entities and forces neither listen nor can be heard.
human-scale-limited and individualist. that listening is sensing and interpreting certain sonic stimuli through an individual body’s known auditory system, within the miniscule bounds of modern human sensorial time and space.
Cartesian, dualist, binary, and compartmentalized. that sensing the living world does not rely on the whole or involve multiple other non-auditory sensors, antennae, and receptors.
empiricist. that it requires only receptivity to material significations of sound and vibration which are available to the five senses and sensorial temporalities and spatialities sanctioned by modernity.
linear time. that what we can hear exists in a fixed, stable, and identifiable form.
ahistorical and depoliticized. that ways of listening and being-hearable are historically and politically neutral phenomena.
attached to understanding, recognition, certainty, and control. that knowing and identifying through listening creates greater belonging, opportunities to manipulate our environments, and security.
extractivist and consumptive. that it is possible and right for humans to extract information from the world to consume and digest for certain humans’ benefit with no responsibility to reciprocity or collective health.
attached to knowability, intelligibility and logical coherence. that what we do not hear is filtered out of perception because it is unintelligible or dissonant and, in the modern logic, therefore irrelevant.
It is no wonder and no coincidence that we feel so disconnected. The modern/colonial sensorium ruptures and denies the experience of “heightened receptivity to meaningful solicitations – songs, cries, gestures – of the larger, more than human world” (Abram 1997: 16) and therefore our capacity for sensing and honoring our “ancestral reciprocity with the animate earth” (Abram 1997: 45). It contributes to making human-supremacist, capitalist, white supremacist, and patriarchal violence against life possible as it silences and makes us insensible to the sounds of the suffering caused by the separation, to its multitudinous voices of resistance and resilience, and to intimate ways of knowing what it means and will take to live in right relation. How do we become capacitated to listen otherwise?
‘De-tuning’ colonial common sense
I am trying to learn how to answer this question through exploring practices that Canada-based professor of anthropology Natasha Myers describes as ways of disrupting and “de-tuning colonial common sense” (Myers 2020). By this, she means “forget everything you thought you knew about the living world, especially what you believe is perceptible, imaginable, reasonable, legible and meaningful” (Myers 2021). This includes our investments in modern relations with knowing and knowability, especially those which reproduce extractive, consumptive, instrumentalizing, and supremacist relations with Indigenous thinkers and realities that non-Indigenous people of modernity often grasp towards as ways of seeking “connection” while denying and escaping the work to interrupt the violence that begins in our own ways of relating. “Do not appropriate Indigenous knowledges,” she writes, “but do the work to make yourself receptive and responsive so that you can take these knowledges seriously” (Evans and Myers 2020; Myers 2020). Here, I share some thinking from three relational artists and students of interspecies and transspecies love whose work is supporting me in this inquiry – Gloria Anzaldúa, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and Anna Tsing.
Sensing the spirit of other realities in an “ocean of uncanny signs” (Gloria Anzaldúa)
It is one o’clock in a morning. I am in my childhood home reading Gloria Anzaldúa’s book – Light in the Dark/Luz en lo Oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality – again. I cannot see the moon from my window, “brightly lit against the night,” but I know Anzaldúa will remind me to remember moon’s presence and teachings.
When writing at night, I’m aware of la luna, Coyolxauhqui, hovering over my house. I envision her muerta y decapitada (dead and decapitated), una cabeza con los parpados cerrados (eyes closed). But then her eyes open y la miro dar luz a los lugares oscuros. I see her light the dark places. Writing is a process of discovery and perception that produces knowledge and conocimiento (insight). (Anzaldúa 2015: 1)
Writing was an impulse and imperative for Anzaldúa, a “struggle to reconstruct oneself and heal the sustos resulting from woundings, traumas, racism, and other acts of violation que hechan pedazos nuestras almas, split us, scatter our energies, and haunt us. The Coyolxauhqui imperative,” as she called it, “is the act of calling back those pieces of the self/soul that have been dispersed or lost, the act of mourning the losses that haunt us” (Anzaldúa 2015: 1). Light in the Dark / Luz en lo oscuro is a love letter to listening practices that bridge us with and bring us back to realities from which we are separated by the modern/colonial sensorium and its silencing of all others.
The world we ordinarily sense and perceive, Anzaldúa said, is merely a “consensual reality” (consent: with, together /con/ and to feel /sentire/). As a queer, Chicana, feminist, US-based poet, writer, teacher, and activist who struggled with and learned from chronic illness for much of her life, she lived, thought-felt, between and in many worlds at once. She called these places “nepantlas.” Nepantla is a Nahuatl word meaning “in the middle,” for her, between types of realities – places, times, identities, geographies, languages; between life and death, imagination, and physical existence; between ordinary and nonordinary (spirit) realities (Keating 2015: xxxiv). These places and the beings and relationships within them can only be experienced through expansive sensibility. Here, life moves in unfamiliar vibrations and forms in an “ocean of uncanny signs” (Anzaldúa 2015: 98) that can only be read when embodied hearts and minds sense as one – corazones y razones. Modern ways of listening, the modern/colonial sensorium which attunes to fixed categories of signification, meaning and identity, are helpless here. To experience relation, we de-tune from the “consensual reality,” sense in and out to perceive what has been exiled, feel how it hurts to hear the whole of another cosmology. Nepantlas “are places of constant tension, where the missing or absent pieces can be summoned back, where transformation and healing may be possible, where wholeness is just out of reach but seems attainable” (Anzaldúa 2015: 2). They summon us into altered states from within which we may listen for non-normative, strange-familiar, and discordant signals that alert us to their presence and. It is from within such states that we may be able to bring these signals into form as sensible experiences.
Anzaldúa lived and listened in an interbeing reality more whole and inclusive than many of the secular imaginaries of co-existence that now prevail in multispecies or more-than-human studies. Inspired by but seeking to not appropriate Indigenous ways of knowing relationship, she engaged listening practices as a form of spiritual activism and devotion to the spiritual realities of thriving life through which it can make itself available to be known. “Spirit infuses all that exists,” she writes. “Organic and inorganic – transcending the categories and concepts that govern your perception of material reality. Spirit speaks through your mouth, listens through your ears, sees through your eyes, touches with your hands” (Anzaldúa 2015: 137).
Towards this knowing grows a sensorium that, when engaged, allows for profound and promiscuous listening below and beyond modernity’s sensuous membranes. What happens when we allow these vital vibrations to touch our skin, stories, secrets, and dreams, not to extract but to be un/re/done by them? To hear this way is to converse with the creative force of multiplicitous reality, to feel shapes, textures, cadences, rhythms, pulses, timbres, frequencies, and forms that modernity does not govern and that tell our stories otherwise. Throughout La Luz, we learn what Anzaldúa learned from paying attention to “irrational events, messages from the environment, dreams, fantasies, and other imagining processes” (Anzaldúa 2015: 34). Nonhuman beings are important teachers, mentors, and guides. Nature, she writes, “provokes un ‘aja’ or ‘conocimiento,’ one that guides your feet along the path, gives you el animo to dedicate yourself to transforming perceptions of reality, and thus the conditions of life” (Anzaldúa 2015: 117). She is guided by what she hears in the wind or the ocean.
I listen to waves impact the shore, waves originating from beyond the far edge of the sea, perhaps caused by a storm in a distant corner of the earth or the ice melting in the Arctic. Our actions have ripple effects on all people and the planet’s environment. We are accountable for all the wars, all human disasters – none of us are blameless. We ourselves have brought this great turmoil upon ourselves. We are all wounded, but we can connect through the wound that’s alienated us from others. When the wound forms a cicatrix, the scar can become a bridge linking people split apart. (Anzaldúa 2015: 21)
A tree. Rain. A sump pump sucking water. The computer’s hum. The radio. Raging storms. States of awareness. Sensations. The abyssal ache within.
When you feel low, the longing for your potential self is an ache deep within. Something within flutters its feathers, stretches toward the sky. You try to listen more closely, bringing all your faculties to bear on transforming your condition. Using these insights to alter your current thoughts and behavior, you reinterpret their meanings. As you learn from the different stages you pass through, your reactions to past events change. You re-member your experiences in a new arrangement. Your responses to the challenges of daily life also adjust. As you continually reinterpret your past, you reshape your present. Instead of walking your habitual routes you forge new ones. The changes affect your biology. The cells in your brain shift and, in turn, create new pathways, rewiring your brain. (Anzaldúa 2015: 135)
From the inseparable whole of life,
spirit and mind, soul and body, are one, and together they perceive a reality greater than the vision experienced in the ordinary world. I know that the universe is conscious and that spirit and soul communicate by sending subtle signals to those who pay attention to our surroundings, to animals, to natural forces, and to other people. We receive information from ancestors inhabiting other worlds. We assess that information and learn how to trust that knowing. (Anzaldúa 2015: 24)
What does it take to perceive and receive them? What does it take to trust?
Interspecies ancestral listening as reaching to listen for breath (Alexis Pauline Gumbs)
It is another morning, later, brighter, on a chilly English beach and I am tacking back and forth between two books by Alexis Pauline Gumbs: Dub: Finding Ceremony and Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals. Gumbs describes herself as a “Queer Black Feminist Love Evangelist and an aspirational cousin to all sentient beings” (Rasheed 2021). A writer like Anzaldúa, she is also a student of deep human and nonhuman archival and ancestral listening. The question she invites me to this morning is not whether our ancestors’ voices can be trusted, but how those who have inherited modern/colonial sensoria that make us unreliable and often harmful sensors can become trustworthy listeners. I learn, again, how de-tuning from habitual ways of making sense is medicine. How it throws us into encounter with what has been rendered insensible by modernity. How the task is listening otherwise, where the form this takes is not translating strange sounds into familiar but revolutionary “heretical poetic action against our deepest beliefs” (Gumbs 2020a: x). How this responds to and elicits rhythms that come not from predictable sounds but – in this poetic work inspired by the Black Caribbean theorist Sylvia Wynter and art of African-Jamaican-Canadian London-based dub poet d’bi.young anitafrika – from “the impact of repetition and the incantatory power of the spoken broken word” reaching through time and space (Gumbs 2020a: xiii). How this moves in spiritual-poetic prose-prayer:
if you gathered them they would be everyone.
recognize in them your jawline, your wet eyes, your long-fingered hands, seeking what but this multitude. if you gathered them they would not fit on this island. they would spill back into the ocean whence they came. when you gather them they will have fins and claws and names you do not know.
gather them anyway.
some will look you in the eye, some are too microscopic to see. if you don’t gather them all you will never be free. if you gathered them you could not hold them, scold them, demand back what you think is lost. gather them today or your soul is the cost. gather the ones who sold and who bought and who tossed overboard. gather the erstwhile children in the name of the lord. gather the unclaimed fathers, the ones with guns and with swords, gather them up, with your hands. with your relationship to land. With your chin set. you are not done yet, you never will.
gather them more. gather them still.
they will unfound you and surround you unfind you and unwind you travel to you untravel through you your own needle gather the thread. collect your dead. (Gumbs 2020a: 8)
Dub is the record of an extended experiment in interspecies listening “on the scale of one life connected to all other lives” (Gumbs 2020a: xi). Every morning, Gumbs trained herself in the arts of listening to the stories being told by her kin, including “relatives outside what we understand to be the human species” and her never-considered-human relatives – enslaved, disabled, queer, and indigenous ancestors and “everyone subject to the [NHI] police radio codes” that Wynter wrote about (Gumbs 2020a: xii). Through this process she attuned her senses to “a new and threatening listening” practice, one that not only heightened sensitivity to exiled voices and vibrations but required her to commit a “species-scale betrayal of our founding mythologies” and “surrender to language practices outside [her] memory and education”. She describes Dub as a “catalog of possible methods for remembering, healing, listening, and living otherwise” with our human and nonhuman ancestors (Gumbs 2020a: xii), with the origin stories of who we are and how we were and are and might yet be related.
Gumbs expands this relational practice in Undrowned, where her question is:
How can we listen across species, across extinction, across harm? How does echolocation, the practice many marine mammals use to navigate the world through bouncing sounds, change our understandings of ‘vision’ and visionary action? (Gumbs 2020b: 15)
Trans-species listening, she says, “is not only about the normative ability to hear, it is a transformative and revolutionary resource that requires quieting down and tuning in” (Gumbs 2020b: 15). Of stilling the vibrations of modernity to feel the rhythms that conduct how other beings adapt themselves and their relationships to support collective survival in conditions that are turbulent, opaque, and disturbed by human violence that modern sensibilities have evolved to tune out. In this work she attends above all to the rhythms of collective breathing and drowning, across time and space, violence and liberation, that connect us on deep-time and contradictory planetary scales. To the intergenerational, cross-species impact of this magical metabolic “exchange of release for continued life” in which we are all entangled (Gumbs 2020b: 1). Gumbs is apprenticing with marine mammals, she says, by learning how and why they echolocate.
I had to focus not on what I could see and discern, but instead on where I was in relation, how the sound bouncing off me in relationship to my structures and environments that surround me locates me in a constantly shifting relationship to you, whoever you are by now. (Gumbs 2020b: 6)
Undrowned is replete with teachers. Like the river dolphin, who, because they cannot trust their eyesight within rivers’ turbulent flows, “become experts of shape, and shape themselves to become narrow, reaching forward like the river” to support embodied awareness of their environment and each other. “Have you grown that way, riverine?” she asks us (Gumbs 2020b: 18).
In a context that moves so quickly that looking at it tells you almost nothing? Are you evolving a deeper way of listening where you are? Could we become students of shape precise enough to move with the grace and flexibility our circumstance requires even though your river is not my river?
I am amazed by how much listening can do. How quickly it becomes less important to be seen, to leap, to show. And those who study river dolphins know it too. Don’t bother looking for these teachers who will rarely jump or splash. You have to listen for them, try to hear them breathe.
I breathe in shape. I shape my days while land contours me at two sides. I shape my breath to wind through winding paths ahead. I shape my head to fit the purpose of my breath. My breath is prayer, the shape of life, evolving name. All I can see is just the blur that says life moves. I stay in prayer, and reach to listen for your breath. (Gumbs 2020b: 19)
She is learning from other marine mammals, too. Like the Hydrodamalis gigas, an enormous sea creature who, while in existence, could not sing “but could hear for miles and miles” and was hunted into extinction for blubber and fur only twenty-seven years after humans “discovered” her in 1741. “What a loss for listening,” Gumbs mourns, and asks this being how we can honor “the archive of your breathing.” (Gumbs 2020b: 16)
I would honor you with the roughness of my skin, the thickness of my boundaries, the warmth of my own fat. I would honor you with my quiet and my breathing, my listening further and further out and in. I would honor you with the slowness of my movement, contemplative and graceful. I would try to be like you even though they say it’s out of fashion. I will remember you. Not by the name (written in the possessive) of the one they say ‘discovered’ you after generations of Indigenous relationship. I will say once upon a time there was a huge and quiet swimmer, a plant-based rough-skinned listener, a fat and graceful mammal. And then I will be quiet, so I can hear you breathing. And then I will be breathing and you’ll remind me, do not rush. And the time in me will hush. And then we will be listening for real. (Gumbs 2020b: 17)
What shapes do our own bodies take when we listen as if only (certain) human beings are alive and relating? When we listen to extract information from the living world that we hope will allow us to master it? When we desire familiar ambience, tune out the unknown, and invest in refining practices that attune us to familiar frequencies? When we privilege sound over silence, note over rhythm, meaning over vibration? When listening is a defensive and consumptive action rather than a gift of intimacy? When it disavows commitment to mutual respect, reciprocity, and responsibility? What new shapes might we make to become sensible to other types of reality?
Listening for the shape of life’s motion over time (Anna Tsing)
It is a summer afternoon now. I am lying on a family porch in a valley in Portugal where smoke from a nearby wildfire has turned the sun red, and it is too hot to move so I am reading Anna Tsing’s book The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (2021). Tsing is a US-based feminist multispecies anthropologist who also worries around this question and the violence of the modern/colonial sensorium. How will we create “liveable collaborations” in the ecologically volatile yet also queerly creative ruins of capitalism if we cannot communicate across the radical differences that constitute our co-existence? What possibilities do the complexity and contamination of encounter make possible, and how can we sense the signs of their emergence?
Here, Tsing shares lessons from her many teachers, both human – mushroom hunters, lovers, and mycologists around the world – and the matsutake mushrooms with whom their intimate, economic, and political lives are entangled. The people teach her that our modern ways of sensing, perceiving, and making sense of reality obscure it. While producing and consuming matsutake mushrooms is a global business tied up with flows of human conflict, displacement, and settlement, the fungi themselves rely on radically non-capitalistic ways of being, communicating, and relating. The mushrooms, who grow in what she calls the “blasted landscapes” of modern capitalist catastrophe, teach her that they can only be known through practices that refuse modern/colonial perceptions of species, time, progress, and relationship. If we are to “make common cause with other living beings,” she says, then “listening is no longer enough; other forms of awareness will have to kick in” (Tsing 2021: 254). The lessons are radically relational: interconnected with one another and inseparable from the ways more-than-human nature communicates with itself.
Lessons such as how relating with an individual mushroom that we remove from their home cannot teach us what they know about living and dying together. “The privately owned mushroom is an offshoot from a communally living underground body,” she writes. “A body forged through the possibilities of latent commons, human and nonhuman.” The very idea that they could be sensible in their fullness when separated is “an outrage” (Tsing 2021: 271).
Like how instead of listening for specific sounds that bodies might make, we can listen for signs of life-force and relationship instead. Fungi “keep growing and changing form all their lives,” she writes, and “are famous for changing shape in relation to their encounters and environments. Many are potentially ‘immortal,’ meaning they die from disease, injury, or lack of resources, but not from old age” (Tsing 2021: 97). As they constantly re-form through encountering other entities, their ways and means of communicating evolve laterally and ongoingly as well. Tsing takes their cue to ask what other rhythms and frequencies humans can attune to once we sense that “our indeterminate life form [is] not the shape of our bodies but rather the shape of our motions over time” (2021: 47). Knowing that a body itself, as an ephemeral energetic form, is a shape of motion over time.
Like Anzaldúa and Gumbs, but in her own anthropological way, Tsing’s listening is a full-bodied, tran/s/ensorial practice of tuning into signs of life that are relational, indeterminate, and inaccessible to the modern/colonial sensorium. Like nepantlas and the silent beats of collective breathing, it is in spaces that have been deemed devoid of significance that “we might look for what has been ignored because it never fit the time line of progress” (Tsing 2021: 21). For vibrations of multi-layered stories of encounter and contamination. For signs that emerge so slowly they are only sensible in deep time. For nonlinear beats whose rhythms are only revealed in “sporadic but consequential coordinations” (Tsing 2021: 158). For processes, positions, relationships, patterns, the nuances of slow living and dying and cycles of birthing and flourishing and decay. Attuning to what has been exiled and excised from modern senses of time, being, and relation in capitalism yet still survives is not some pleasurable pastime but a co-evolutionary necessity. What we need to bring this into felt-sense form, Tsing says, is not technology for translation but world-making “projects for rebuilding curiosity” about how we are response-able (capable of responding) to our complex entanglements with one another (2021: 281).
Gesturing towards an interbeing relational sensorium
I want to be careful with curiosity, the kind implied by the modern meaning of the word – a mode of being “eager to know, inquisitive or desirous of seeing” that carries some sense of “meddling” (Etymology Online 2022). Being curious through the filters of the modern/colonial sensorium filters yearning through ways of sensing, perceiving, and making sense of the world that observe, consume, and assimilate it by centering white heteropatriarchal capitalist human desires for healing modern people’s species loneliness in comfortable and familiar ways. Older meanings of the word teach us that more relational modes of wonder grow from desiring intimacy with who and what is unfamiliar, strange, and queer. They harken listening practices that are themselves “solicitous, anxious, inquisitive, odd or strange” to modern sensibilities. In its root, curiosity is connected most deeply with cura, with care (Etymology Online 2022).
Only through making gestures that open the channels of a relational sensorium can we respond to our human and nonhuman relations’ solicitations for reciprocity and radical care. It is much wider and wiser and older than the bodies we know. It is “de-tuned” to habits of experiencing reality through the modern/colonial categories, binaries, and hierarchies that separate us from our felt sense of ourselves, one another, and the animate living earth. Attuned to the solicitations of the muted realities, of ways of living, dying, and adapting to co-exist that have been exiled from the modern/colonial project. It knows that human intelligences are neither separate nor supreme; it knows that we can be dangerous. It orients our faculties of sensing, perceiving, and making sense towards relational significance – who and what might be a relation and a story, how we are in relation-with, where relations are healthy or in suffering states – and towards clues to how we can care for collective survival. Its sensorial maps are distributed – not concentrated in ears and brains but at work in the communications of bones, organs, skins, the molecules that pass between us, the inbreaths and outbreaths that unfold stories. It knows nondualism, synaesthesia, myths and metaphors bring forces that have been fragmented into their relational forms. Surrenders attachment to form – of sounds, notes, words – to make space for experiencing force as it moves into and out of form. Allows us to listen across time and space, for echoes and murmurings, to how voices carry each other across generations through vocalic vibrations that transpass identities, nations, clocks, and markets. The grammar of this sensorium is the animate; how much more can we name as happening, as process, as verb?
Through this sensorium, we can listen to the needs, movements, and compatibilities of other bodies with whom we are mortally bound in living and dying. It is more than “multispecies” or “interspecies,” as it refuses modern perceptions of who is an entity and what is alive. It opens us to voices from bodies, places, times, and realms from which we have been taught no existence can come; we sense this as collective healing and not threat or disease. Silence, surrender, emptiness, and the unintelligible are all valued modes of communication here. We listen expansively for the unstable, the unpredictable, and the indeterminate, for relations in process, how they move, what in them is lasting and precarious, and the sometimes surprising forms through which they make themselves known. We attend to the shapes that relationship takes. When I say translate here, I mean shapeshift, I mean trans-dimensionalize, I mean jump scale. I mean response-able partnering with life.
I am learning from Kimmerer, Anzaldúa, Gumbs, Tsing and others that disactivating the modern/colonial sensorium and reactivating our relational faculties is less about trying to “feel connected” and more about cultivating intimacy with the suffering and violence of being separated from that with which we are always-already together. About listening with and through rather than trying to suture up the colonial wound. They teach me that separation is a place, a visceral archive of what was felt in relation before becoming otherwise which lives as if separate within the diminished realities of modern/colonial sensibility. We do not sense into the rage of separation by bypassing this profound form of relationship, for without its wisdom it can be lonely and lethal to say out loud – I don’t. Feel you in me, me in you, our infinitude, the entanglements of this web. Dare finger that wound. Know what to do. I mean, know how. But the disappointment and grief and shame and fear of facing all the ways we don’t yet know how to heal this separation is a special form of intimacy that activates not only yearning but re-membering.
My own settler-colonial ancestral lineage requires me to move from this place that has so long been silenced as having nothing to say. I am trying to heed the publicly shareable teachings of Indigenous thinkers who urge that the limit of the modern/colonial imaginary and sensorium, the liminal places between these and other realities, the wounding of historical and ongoing colonial conflict, and the sense of separation from sacredly interconnected body-lands are all vital places of learning for people of modernity who, often without access to any relational metaphysics, seek to cultivate projects of sensing, perceiving, making sense, and altogether relating otherwise.
I share much today with the star-gazing child I introduced at the beginning of this story. But I am starting to learn how what Kimmerer calls the “species loneliness” I have felt since then is a messenger and a teacher and I will end this essay with a story of another encounter. Two years ago, I was walking through, working through, a forest in Portugal with two friends and collaborators. We were listening for encounter; curious, as it were, about what it could be like to be more intentionally intimate with the nonhuman relations we were moving among. We met the remains of a tree, stumped, left for dead yet resonant with movements of life – their sap-blood, the beetles, all moist. They felt closer than the stars and I tried to love them. I left them thinking I felt nothing and wrote a letter to apologize. It went like this.
It scared me that I couldn’t feel you when our skins touched. That I couldn’t see you when I let the weight of my head press your rough edges into my eyes. That my body rejected your fungal dust when it tried to make my nostrils home. That I felt your silence like shame and worried I would not be able to rinse your gnarled, sticky taste from my tongue. That I needed to translate your amputation into words in order to grieve it. That I needed to compost your decaying into birth to bear it witness. That in all the times you came inside me, buoying each word of my life with breath, I never bothered to learn your language. That I knew this was not how it works; pathetic. That the last thing it felt like was friendship or kinship or prayer. Stripped senseless, implicated, and incapacitated to love.
This, I remember whispering to myself, is a humiliating catastrophe. And then I felt – yes, it is a start. I was disappointed that I did not immediately have a sensed experience of my material and spiritual inseparability with this tree. Then I remembered what I have learned through the “queer art of failure,” that “under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world” than seeking to be sensible in this diminished, death-dealing reality (Halberstam 2011: 1). I knew that this pathetic, humiliating catastrophe – the metabolic rift between modern human beings and the rest of life on Earth, the colonial rupture, in me, my sensorium – must have surprising lessons to teach me, and that taking part in its decomposition might help transform its rotting parts into soil. But what could this kind of catastrophe catalyze? I returned to the roots.
/ catastrophe (n.) / 1530s, “reversal of what is expected” (especially a fatal turning point in a drama, the winding up of the plot), from Latin catastropha, from Greek katastrophe, “an overturning; a sudden end,” from katastrephein, “to overturn, turn down, trample on; to come to an end,” from kata, “down,” + strephein, “turn,” (from PIE root *streb[h], “to wind, turn”
/ humiliate (v.) / “to cause to be or appear lower or more humble, depress, especially to abase in estimation; subject to shame or disgrace; mortify;” 1530s, a back-formation from humiliation or else from Late Latin humiliatus…from humilis “lowly, humble,” literally “on the ground,” from humus “earth” (from PIE root *dhghem- “earth”)
/ pathetic (adj.) / 1590s, “affecting the emotions or affections, moving, stirring;” from Greek pathetikos “subject to feeling, sensitive, capable of emotion,” from pathetos “liable to suffer” (from PIE root *kwent(h)- “to suffer”)
/ pathetic, humiliating catastrophe (n.) / a stirring or overturning of sense-ability through being humbled by earth; an unexpected beginning
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