Fadia Dakka, Kirsten Forkert, Ed McKeon, Jill Robinson and Ian Sergeant
Rationale and Context
This issue of the Journal of Sonic Studies came from a gnawing sense of exhaustion and a need to recuperate, to find solidarity, reflect, consider alternatives, and to gather resources and energy for what may follow. When we staged our one-day symposium on Voice and Listening: Techniques for Political Life at Birmingham City University in March 2021, we were marking the anniversary of the UK’s first lockdown during the global pandemic. With tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths already recorded and unbearable strain on hospitals, doctors, and other public services, it felt urgently important to take time out with others to both gain a better understanding of the current situation as well as to discover strategies for action and renewal.
The pandemic was only the most recent, intimate, and comprehensive of a litany of ills that has stricken the UK and many countries over the last few decades. At least since the initiation of the global “War on Terror” and the invasion of Iraq – followed by the 2008 bankers’ crisis and the subsequent austerity measures imposed on publics – evidence of systemic failings has mounted with ruinous regularity. The uneven impacts of Covid-19 have increased the growing exposure of human life to the ecological, societal, and political dysfunctions that maintain and reproduce our unequal world.
Perhaps it was the enforced isolation and withdrawal from public space, then, that prompted our attention towards matters of voice and listening. Congregating with others had been restricted by law, and we all found ourselves retreating inwardly more than usual (the sorts of experiences explored by Toro and Hernández Castellanos’s contribution to this issue). It seemed that social media began to function as a kind of proxy or ersatz political arena, a place where multitudes of people and bots could gather and be monitored in their often angry and polarised differences as well as in the sameness of their bubbles. This mediation of everyday political practice brought with it a host of distortions, a funhouse mirror reflection of the public's notional capacity to constitute and enact its power through the shared political practice of collective deliberations. As we know only too well, algorithms amplify some opinions and diminish others, demanding our prolonged attention with distractions, rage, and outrage.
This shift in the articulation of political life has then also drawn attention to the ways and means through which it is conducted and "filtered", revealing that our state of compounding and overlapping disasters cannot be addressed effectively as long as our governing conceptions of voice and listening remain unaltered. The crisis as such—the moment of decisive change—will remain suspended (Gentili 2021) unless we change our habits of speaking and of auditing (Mowitt 2015) our world and the people in it. These structuring conventions perpetuate the same patterns of power and marginalisation, as articulated and demonstrated by movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. Refusing to submit to this repetition, their demands for systemic change require different ways of approaching notions and practices of voice and listening.
In light of this, at our event we explored questions such as:
- Are we currently witnessing and experiencing a “crisis of voice” and a “crisis of listening”?
- Who – or what – has a voice? Which voices are heard and meaningfully engaged with, and which are not? What does it mean to listen to others and to the non-human others with whom we share this world or, conversely, to ignore them?
- How are techniques of voicing and listening enacted, and what disciplines and strategies might help us to address the multiple crises facing our communities?
We felt it important to situate these questions within the wider context of post-politics and disinformation. Democratic institutions and civil society organisations have never been genuinely inclusive, but they have been further undermined and in some cases dismantled by neoliberalism. As Wendy Brown has noted in The Ruins of Neoliberalism (2019), right-wing populist politicians now exploit distrust and nihilism towards the very concepts of the social and the political. Whilst the dominant political and media classes assert their intention to listen to silenced voices, their proposed solutions often appear defensive, inadequate, divisive, or disingenuous, often focused more on controlling the way the marginalised speak rather than the ideas that they voice. There is now a proliferation of claims to “listen to” and “speak for” sections of society who represent a “pure” authentic public for populists and, ultimately, to avenge their grievances against fabricated enemies (whether immigrants, anti-racist and decolonising activists, Muslims, trans people, etc.). These othered voices are often not silenced but decontextualised and misrepresented for parts of society whose anger has become a political weapon. As Kate Lacey argues in her piece for this issue, this is a consequence of listening being constructed as secondary, as a response to the primacy of voice. It is exemplified by the ‘‘listening exercises” favoured by politicians which predetermine which responses will be taken into consideration and which will not or the social media debates which are frequently dominated by the loudest and most polemical views. These orchestrated, exclusionary listening practices, Sarah Amsler argues, fundamentally originate from, internalize, and reproduce the “modern/colonial sensorium,” a mode of relating to the living world that is rooted in and perpetuates violence and the separation of human beings from one another and from the earth.
In short, we recall that a capacity for speech has been understood as foundational for political life ("vote" derives from "voice", as Lacey reminded us), at least since Aristotle, whilst recognising that the political configuration of voicing and listening to which this gives rise has reached an impasse. For alternatives, we turned to artists, activists, performers, and researchers offering different histories, theories, possibilities, and practices of voicing and listening. We wanted to learn from performance-makers, performance poets, movements, and campaigns that have created spaces for unheard or marginalised voices and that do not privilege representation – either in the sense of speaking or listening on behalf of others or of making language the pre-eminent site of disclosing a world. We wanted to consider how techniques such as collective listening and vocal-spatial resistance (Western) might disturb naturalised habits of communication through which power determines and mediates the public sphere.
Voice and Listening Without Centre
The pairing of voice and listening immediately raises the problem of priority and privilege, of which comes first and which follows (a problem developed by Alarcón and McKeon). We find it striking, then, that so many contributions to this special issue de-centre this dialectic and approach these phenomena instead as a field of tension without a centre. As Rajni Shah notes, listening draws attention to the way that shared space is already articulated by power, privilege, and hierarchy. In a similar way, the emergence of voice studies and of literatures on listening has been distributed across disciplines without any central faculty to claim either as their property. This is significant. Accordingly, in problematising, unpacking, and interrogating the tensions that arise at the intersection of social movements, political and media representation, and creative practices, we have approached techniques of voicing and listening as indisciplines, as methods that flow across and disrupt the smooth functioning and reproduction of disciplinary boundaries and conventions. If transdisciplines might be understood as modes of practice that are not themselves disciplines but that move across and between established fields that remain stable, indisciplines have the further potential to erode the hierarchical arrangement of centre and periphery characteristic of the disciplines they traverse. Kate Lacey, for example, calls for us to “listen out” without predetermining or prejudging what we might hear. Thus, a practice of theatre-making becomes a method for experimental listening in public, making unspoken political conventions audible. A sound installation and multimedia artwork question and challenge a city’s auditory regime and colonial history. Spoken word artists’ texts become simultaneously a creative intervention, an act of affiliation, and an analysis of social, political, and cultural conditions. A Deep Listening process likewise connects migration stories across continents – at once therapeutic, empowering, and political – with an appreciation of vocal movement and transformation exposed by changes to its classed identity. These stories resonate with and reverberate through the “vocal-spatial” resistance invoked in Tom Western’s piece, where practices of “displacing” and “dispolicing” of voice and the city are instrumental to the coalescing and layering of a polyphony of voices engaged in acts of collective refusal and hope.
As indisciplines, voice and listening approach the public domain not through the paradigm of law but through its suspension – through affection and a precarious performativity that gives substance (if not identity) to the reality to which it testifies. To cite John Cage on the musical potential of public life, it is a condition “in which not only are sounds just sounds but in which people are just people, not subject, that is, to laws established by any one of them, even if he is ‘the composer’ or ‘the conductor’” (Cage 1973: unpaginated).
We take voice and listening to be fundamentally relational processes, political at the level of self-production – of self-articulation as separate, sovereign and autonomous – and in practices of social interaction and representation. They are performative in the sense developed by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, not accepting the “property rights” of those granted the authority to speak and to command public space but pressing on the contingency of public utterances by exploiting the gap between statement and intention, rhetoric and power.
The Process Continues
Just as neither voice nor listening provide a “centre” for what follows, neither has the last word. The process continues. We presented our symposium using a “flipped” format: contributors wrote their pieces in advance so that the event itself could focus on discussion and interaction with equal attention paid to giving and receiving, speaking and listening. In a similar way, this issue continues to develop through the processes by which it engages readers and responses. The articles presented here were opened for discussion at a launch event on 10 March 2023, providing opportunities for performance pieces by Ryan Sinclair and Sipho Ndlovu to be documented and for readers to become listeners and speakers.We also held open online reading groups with several of the contributors. We have sought to will fold responses and contributions back into the issue through revisions and adjustments, a procedure that we regard as the completion of the publishing process but not an end of discussions. The process continues.
In preparing these pieces for publication, we have remained acutely aware that the dysfunctions we acknowledged at the beginning of our journey have not disappeared, even as the pandemic’s impact on public gatherings has waned. If anything, they have proliferated further. The effects of these conditions on all of those contributing and on ourselves has also been evident. Precarisation through departments being de-funded or scrapped, temporary contracts, increased pressure on family commitments, and the need both to provide and to receive care have all inflected the shape of this special issue. We remain incredibly grateful to the editors of the Journal of Sonic Studies for their generosity and understanding as deadlines have passed and for their enthusiasm in embracing the unusual approach we proposed for the publication and launch of the issue.
Our event in March 2021 was focused largely on contributions from Birmingham – where we were all based at the time – and other parts of the UK. We have taken the opportunity afforded by developing this special issue to reach out further. We are very aware that the kinds of structural failures now haunting the more advantaged societies of the Global North were first imposed on much of the Global South. We fully acknowledge that this should not make our woes somehow more privileged, to be addressed more urgently. Nonetheless, it does invite a realisation that approaches for ameliorating these failures must themselves be truly global and that those in the South – as well as indigenous and subaltern groups in the North who have faced these conditions under duress for much longer – may have the most to teach all of us who seek a durable world to inhabit peacefully. We would have liked to take this further – and perhaps that is a next step – but we are especially pleased to feature contributions informed by experiences in Mexico, Colombia, and with First Nations communities in present-day North America. This has highlighted another aspect of our topic. Within the editing process, we have been intimately concerned with aspects of “translation”. Writers are often proclaimed to have “voices,” voices that editors aim to clarify and amplify rather than muffle or change. We have tried to strike a careful balance between respecting the particularities of individual writers and the need to craft a space for mutual understanding, and this comes starkly into focus when writers are shaping their texts through languages that have been imposed through forms of colonisation – especially English and Spanish. If misunderstanding occurs, we consider this our responsibility and would welcome the chance to address this through the extended process of publication.
Kate Lacey’s piece explores the “labour of listening,” challenging conceptions of the act of listening as primarily a passive activity responding to and therefore “belonging” to voice. In doing so, she asks important questions about the way the practice of listening has been constructed within dominant discourses. Examples of these include calls to “give voice” to marginalised groups, politicians’ “listening exercises” which pre-script and predetermine the ways in which the public can be heard, and the commodification of public voices (audience figures, engagement metrics, etc.). Instead, Lacey conceives of listening as a productive, critical practice that also entails political responsibility and involves cognitive and emotional labour. Listening, therefore, does not come out of voice but, as Lacey argues, “sits alongside it”. Rather than responding to a text, it involves a radical openness in terms of a “listening out” to the undefined, the unknown, the jarring, as much as one might “listen in” to the familiar or expected. The practice of listening therefore takes work, and – like freedom of speech or democratic ethics – needs to be actively practised.
“Decolonial Listening and the Politics of Sound: Water, Breathing and Urban Unconscious” by Rodrigo Toro and Donovan Hernández Castellanos develops the concept of “decolonial listening” as a “poetic-political exercise” that explores the legacy of colonial pasts inscribed in the present, especially in the experience of contemporary Latin American cities. It is based on two works: Wet Season / Dry Season (2021), a sound installation by the Celia Yunior artists collective presented at the Jakarta Biennial, Indonesia, and an interdisciplinary piece entitled Breathe (2020), which combined dance, literature, sound, and video and was a response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The piece is accompanied by images, video, and audio recordings of the works as well as a field recording of the cityscape of Mexico City.
Ximena Alarcón and Ed McKeon’s piece takes the form of listening through dialogue. It is inspired by both the Sonic Meditations (1974) by Pauline Oliveros and Thomas Bernhard’s short story The Voice Imitator (and the revelation of the ability to imitate any other voice except for one’s own). The authors share the experience of listening to themselves and reflect on their experiences of “finding their voices.” The dialogue moves through questions of migration, accent, and translation and how these reveal deeper questions regarding class, nationality, multilingualism, and border-crossing. The dialogue develops around responses to three questions, which can be read side-by-side. As the authors acknowledge, their voices differ and are inflected by different syntax, accents, and experiences. The piece also includes an audio excerpt in which the authors speak through each other.
Tom Western’s piece takes as a starting point the political slogan “covered mouths still have a voice,” originally uttered by medical workers protesting in Greece and subsequently “retuned” and reinvigorated during the pandemic context. From here, the horizon materially and metaphorically expands to “listen out” from Athens and Greece towards “planetary forms” of activism. Western explores techniques of vocal-spatial resistance, enacted through the development of relational solidarities and communities of care that express and articulate – through their distinctive voices – their political resistance to authoritarian regimes, their fight against the criminalisation of protests dressed as public safety concern, and the increasing recourse to border violence. The reader is taken on a powerful and poetic journey of resistance through voice, hearing-feeling the plight of Syrian refugees and their Greek comrades in Athens as they fiercely reclaim the Mediterranean as a space that defies borders and redraws sonic cartographies of hope.
Sarah Amsler’s contribution to this special issue indicts, with sharp, painful lucidity, the “modern/colonial sensorium” that has shaped our ability to relate to the living world in ways so profoundly rooted in violence (epistemicide, genocide, ecocide), abandonment and separation that we are now left to confront the ruins of a self-inflicted “species loneliness.” Amsler takes the reader with her on a moving, soul-shattering journey towards the beginning of a healing process, finding guidance and solace in feminist, queer, multi-/interspecies thinking-feeling-living, here informed by the generous teachings of Gloria Anzaldua, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and Anna Tsing. In this essay listening is powerfully transcended into a relational sensorium that “gestures towards attunements with the sounds, vibrations, rhythms, frequencies, timbres, and languages of metabolic life itself.” The question at the heart of this piece – how can we learn to listen “otherwise” and collectively to the pulses of the living and imaginary world(s) we are deeply enmeshed with – begins and ends with a plea to listen to and through the abyssal silence of pain, grief, and separation with courage, with patience, with hope.
Rajni Shah’s writing is woven throughout the issue. Their texts can be read in a pause for breath between other contributions, or you might choose to follow them as a single thread. They might take your breath away. They offer traces of Rajni’s journey through theatre-making, activism, writing, podcasting, and academia as they seek methods of fashioning worlds with others not pre-shaped by colonialism, racism, and prejudice of all forms. These are lessons absorbed both from hard experience and from the poetry of being with others. They speak of a curiosity to explore forms of gathering and shaping attention, acutely aware of their subtle and overt politics. Acts of listening and voicing articulate relations and the space between us, and, through thoughtful reflection, Rajni suggests “we are capable of so much more.” They invite us generously to do the same.
Closing this special issue, at least for now, we have a Q&A with Rajni in lieu of a review of their book Experiments in Listening, which we encourage you to read in full for yourself. This Q&A does not pass judgement, as reviews typically do, but opens a dialogue, an exchange and response, that provides an opening into Rajni’s experience and the topics and structures of concern and delight that the book unfolds.
Brown, Wendy (2019). In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West. New York: Columbia University Press.
Cage, John (1973). M: Writings ‘67-’72. London: Marion Boyars.
Gentili, Dario (2021). The Age of Precarity: Endless Crisis as an Art of Government. London: Verso.
Mowitt, John (2015). Sounds: The Ambient Humanities. Oakland, CA: University of Chicago Press.