Text The Art of Listening @ STRP festival

STRP invited me to write a text for their 2023 festival call, around the theme of listening. Find it on their website and below!

Now that many silences have been broken with the help of platforms and media – for the good and for the bad – STRP wonders how we can revalue and reclaim the art of listening. What would an environment for active and empathic listening look like? How can we train our ears and hearts to be more receptive to our fellow human beings, to plants and animals, to nature. Also, how can we learn to listen more carefully to our own bodies and intuition?

The turn towards listening can be seen as a response to the dominance of visual culture. Sight and seeing have been predominant for ages, not just since the advent of the web, cinema, or the advertising industry. Western philosophy has always given preference to that whichcan be seen over that which must be heard. We are so immersed in visual culturethat we hardly notice sound anymore. Over the past years the appreciationof sound has slowly changed, with the growing popularity of sound-based social media, streaming services, and of course podcasts.

Next to seeing, we prefer speaking over listening. Self-expression is what drives thinking, science,and our social media worth. Since social media have become the megaphone for the masses, where everyone can speak their mind anytime, the question who is there to listen takes on a new dimension. Attentive listening has evolved into a skill, a most useful tool for winning an argument or reaching another (professional) goal. Pop-psychology tells us that learning how to listen closely will sharpen our thinking skills, improve our leadership and power, and make us a better friend or partner. Or is the goal of such listening in the end to make people hear you?

Behind rules and tips for learning how to listen, lie thorough methodologies like deep listening (Pauline Oliveros). Time, ecological awareness, embodiment, and togetherness are important aspects of deep listening that oftentimes get lost in popular adaptations. At the same time, these aspects show the potential for deep listening in rethinking our relationship with the world. Otherroots of listening dig deep into religious and non-western philosophical traditions, where sound, voice, and their vibrationsin the body are important. What can we learn from such practices for the future?

Listening can be a way to give room to that which issuppressed. It means being quiet if just for a little while, withholding your biases and prejudice, and letting that which has been silenced or ignored speak out. The question ‘Who speaks?’, is inevitably linked to the question: ‘Who listens?’ (Gayatri Spivak) The turn towards listening, as a practice, method, and theory, must question power relations and existing hierarchies. It calls for a dialogue in the true sense of the word. Listening to the other means to stop filling in the blanks for the other without asking them what they want, think, or feel themselves (Rolando Vázquez).

Such a careful and critical understanding of the ethics of listening seems even more important when we consider that we are not the only ones trying to listen. Machines are becoming avid listeners, especially now that voice recognition devices enter our houses and (home) workplaces. They track our voices, record our conversations, and have artificial intelligence – or humans – listen to us in the search for information. In that sense they resemble an updated version of the man upstairs in the film about East-German espionage Das Leben der Anderen. We shouldn’t forget there are far-reaching political dimensions to sound, silence, and the act of listening (Lawrence Abu Hamdan).

Can we turn the tables on machinic listening and use it for the good? Listening as a counter-act is not about searching and finding useful or valuable information, it is about opening ourselves to the other and to the world around. What unexpected and unpredictable things may happen once we start to really listen? Listen up, not just with your ears, but with your whole body. What you hear might be painful – stories ofoppression, extinction, oblivion, and trauma – but it will just as well be rich, musical, alive, and exhilarating.