Listening with our whole bodies

This month, advaya embarks on an investigation into listening with our whole bodies. Have you ever listened to your own ancestry and lineage, or listened to our other-than-human collaborators in the natural world? Have you ever thought about listening, about sound, and about how it all evolved to where we are today—a world full of sounds?

Admittedly, it is paradoxical to be writing a lengthy rumination on the topic of listening, but here you and I are: ruminating on listening. Listening, simply put, is the painfully obvious anecdote to the crisis of inattention. I know this, and you probably know this, too, though the cost of paying attention by way of listening sometimes (at least for me) appears to be, and actually is, far too high. But I think the greater the cost of paying attention, in this absurdly capitalistic economy which commodifies our attention in dollars and cents, the more radical the act of listening becomes.

Why don’t we listen? It appears there are more reasons than you’d first think. Biologist and author David G. Haskell, in his exploration of the story of sound on Earth, points to some answers I had never considered before. In his marvellous book, Sounds Wild and Broken, he writes: “To hear is a verb that reveals the narrowness of our sonic perceptions and imaginations. We have no such limitation when we describe how animals move [...] But we have an impoverished vocabulary for hearing. Hear. Listen. Attend. These words do little to open our imagination to the multiplicities of sonic experience.”

“Without a diverse vocabulary for hearing, our minds lapse into inattention and our imagination is limited,” Haskell says. The complexity of the sensorial experience we are immersed in when we hear something, and the layers of the act of producing sound itself, are regrettably depleted because we lack a frame of reference, and we might not even know what we’re missing.

In the same breath, however, I think of how cultural ecologist and philosopher David Abram recently shared that the alphabet has made it such that “it’s the words on the page [that] speak with such potency and vitality, that they block out the much more subtle register in which everything else is speaking.” Which is to say that while seeking out a richer vocabulary to describe what and how we hear, perhaps we are also at the same time flattening the experience itself. Developing our shared vocabulary in this way is at once expansive and limiting.

Another reason why we fail to listen is perhaps because we are listening merely for what we want to hear.

Decades of relationship advice columns have pointed this out, and the advice converges with critiques of academic knowledge-making being plagued by confirmation bias. We miss so much because of our primary concerns with our own voice, our own narratives; of course, this self-centredness is learned behaviour in a society that prizes monologues and sensationalises and idolises singular people and their lives. This society also encourages the belief that we can control which narratives are heard, and which are not—consider how “undesirable” voices are stamped out, how certain stories are “unheard”, both of which stem from how “mass” media is intentionally shaped; then consider how, in similar ways, urbanised environments drive out and drown out cacophonies of all kinds.

When interviewed about his book, Haskell shared this: “When I listen to an orchestra or go to a concert, I want to hear some coherence in tempo and melody, and that’s part of the point [...] But to listen in the forest is to belong within a much bigger set of narratives. The narrative of the living Earth is not just about me or, indeed, my own species; it’s about the convergence of multiple narratives that have to make it work with one another”.

He concludes the set of thoughts with this question: “how do competing narratives, thousands of them, find their way to one another so that they intersect without bringing the whole edifice down?” Indeed, we have so much to learn from more-than-human ecosystems, who manage to embrace what Sophie Strand would call polyphonic storytelling, “without bringing the whole edifice down”.

White supremacy and the rise of empires have unfortunately taught us that diversity kills—when in truth it is that that attempt to control diversity is what kills.

As Haskell shared in the interview too, “making it work” isn’t always beautiful. “[T]here’s a great deal of pain and brokenness in the rules of ecology”. There is competition and cooperation: “the more intense the competitive environment, the deeper the cooperation has to be for creatures to thrive.”

Here I think of biologist and philosopher Andreas Weber who writes, in Matter and Desire: “The world of biology is more like a wild playing field with anarchic elements, where the rules of creative togetherness are constantly being renegotiated, where gang wars break out between little groups of co-conspirators and schemers, but also where one finds acts of magnanimous sharing, heroic dedication, and dreamlike bliss.”

And this might be a digression, but I also think of mycologist Patricia Kaishian who talks about the disproportionate Darwinian emphasis on competition in biology—she shared that “for every heightened experience, there’s another heightened experience of the same magnitude, but [in] a different direction.” In observing more-than-human ecosystems, we see the pains and pleasures that go into thriving diversity. Maybe we should not be so afraid of polyphonic storytelling; maybe we must allow noisy cacaphonies, allow our social fabric to be torn apart and re-negotiated; it will be painful before it makes sense, and maybe making sense won’t look like what we think it’ll look like.

My final thought, to round off this somewhat haphazard series of thoughts, is that the learned act of refusal to listen perhaps also stems from taking listening for granted.

I speak for myself, first and foremost, as a hearing person—although Haskell argues against this false, cultural divide (he writes in Sounds Wild and Broken that: “We are all insensitive to most of the world’s vibrations and energies. [...] Yet from the small portion of the sound waves that the majority of humans can hear, we have erected a sharp cultural divide. The “hearing” population relies on spoken language to such an extent that those who communicate by sight and gesture are too often excluded.”)

Listening, and sound, are deeply precious gifts, and remarkable developments, living proof of evolution and life, over spans of time we cannot begin to fathom.

As Haskell details, for a long, long time, there was no sound. “The first half a billion years or more of Earth’s sonic history comprised the voices of wind, water, and rock. Then came three billion years of hum from bacteria and the slosh, skitter, and chomp of early animals, a time with many incidental sounds of life but no known communicative voices. A long silence from the living world.”

Then, a revolution. Terrestrial insects evolved wings. This likely broke the silencing power of predation. Wings on a tiny insect enabled escape. The costs of sound making plunged, allowing sonic communication to gain a foothold.” Haskell cautions us against using cause and effect to then say that, because sound-making insects started to fly, they could escape from predators, and so animal calls and songs developed. What we can take away from this story is that a magical, biological series of events took place, that led to the piercing of a long silence with animal calls and song.

Since that first moment of animal sound, evolution has only made sounds, songs, calls—whatever you name it, with our unfortunately barren vocabulary—more vibrant. Flourishing diversity in ecosystems have shaped what, and how, we hear today. Haskell shared in his interview that when humans speak, we are using “a very sophisticated set of muscles”, in our mouths, tongues and the back of our throats. Entire apparatuses have been developed “to make sophisticated and nuanced sounds”.

Every little part of our bodies have come about from long drawn out, intensely collaborative processes, actions simultaneously intricate and miniscule, yet magnified and far bigger than we can begin to imagine. As much as our bodies are products of evolution, so are sounds, and what we hear.

Here I will quote Haskell, from his interview, at length.

“[...] when we hear the songs of birds that live in forests, particularly dense forests, they tend to be slow, whistled melodies, because that is the kind of sound that transmits well through that habitat. You go out to the prairie, and you hear lots of rapid trills and ups and downs in the frequency suite, because that is the sound that works well there. Go to the ocean shore and you hear cries of gulls and oyster catchers that carry over the tumult of surf.

And so the physicality, the materiality of the world, has, in a way, woven itself into the sonic diversity of the creatures that live within that world through this process of the evolutionary adaptation of each creature as they find a voice that works well within the habitat in which they live. This applies below the waves as well: fish and whales are making sounds that transmit well over the right kind of distances for the ecology of their own species. This relationship between materiality and the form of songs applies not just in air, but in water and solids as well.

[...] We’re hearing the legacy of plate tectonics and great migrations of creatures from one part of the Earth to another just by lying in bed and listening to birdsong in the morning. You don’t even have to get out from under the covers and you can hear this magnificent legacy of kinship, not just in the present moment but in deep time.”

Listening tunes us into evidence of living magic, traces of ancestry, both human and more-than-human. It helps us develop a different sense of time, one that we can never experience firsthand, at least not in this life. Through listening we can open doors to worlds of kinship, curing not just the crisis of inattention but also other interrelated crises—of species loneliness, of a lack of meaning.

I confess that it is personally difficult to, and I’d bet that my experience isn’t unique to my self, enliven the world in this way. As a human, a creature, embedded in city life, the urgency of the radical act of listening is dulled by the urgency of many other things. So I offer you a story, not my own, but one that was shared with me, one that reminded me that in the end, even if you don’t attempt to listen, you’ll realise the world beckons you to, anyway.

“[I’ll share] one experience that bowled me over, that happened in the very human world of the city, walking along city street, I was in Manhattan, years ago.

All these people rushing past me, talking on their cell phones, their voices reflected off of all the glass, super slick walls on either side, the stone walls, the glass windows, people charging this way and that, talking on their phones to people who are not actually with them. And there was a kind of madness that was beginning to vibrate in my body, in my limbs. I gotta get out of here.

[So] I’m just trying to make my way to a subway entrance, and I come just to a corner and I’m just about to cross the street, but there’s a sense of a strange openness that beckons to my right, and I turn and the full moon was just then rising right at the end of that side street, over the car tops. Full, and round. Like a ripe peach reflecting off of all the windows of the many floors on either side of that street, turning this whole city into a kind of many-faceted jewel.

And I couldn’t hear any of the car horns, I couldn’t hear any of these voices, I just dropped into, or was under this spell, the gleaming, powerful spell of that lunar gaze and rested there.

Silent, silent, silent. I don’t know how long. But that was a magic, I’ve never forgotten—one of many.”

David Abram, in conversation with Sophie Strand: Magic as Radical Embedding in Our Web of Relations


Tammy Gan

Tammy (she/her) leads on content and storytelling at advaya.

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