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To tend for, to care with: three pieces on listening as method

Our engagement with the world is always interdependent and situated within environments and place. Listening is a way into feeling these relations. Because listening is so ubiquitous, its complexity and expansiveness are often diminished.

Narrowly (mis)construed as conditional on the ears and the voice, listening is understood as instrumental to sharing language. Listening is, as all communication, trained. It is encultured and geographically specific, shaped by social, political and economic forces, violence and oppression. Despite this, it is expected that we listen in universal ways. The fallacy of this is clear when you consider that even though we assume we listen carefully, being unheard, misheard or misunderstood is a common complaint.

How we listen is entwined with how we live and may give insight into how we tend to ourselves and others. Over three posts I will offer some reflections on listening as coming-to, listening as being-with and listening as taking-leave. These are based on events and encounters that occurred during time spent across several Pacific Islands as a visibly transgender, white German Australian ethnographer speaking predominantly with women, queer and transgender community organisers about anti-colonialism, self-determination and environmental crisis.

With these posts I want to emphasise why questions such as “from where do I listen? How do I listen? To what do I attend? What do I hear?” are necessary to thinking about environments and ecosystems. These questions show us that we are always working across difference, which is itself always in-becoming and unknown. The simplicity of such questions belies a profound and critical recognition and responsibility essential to any movement toward abolishing a world built on white supremacist violence and dispossession. The kind of listening that I am attempting to theorise alongside and play with here is unequivocally arduous, slow and constitutes many lifetimes work and thought undertaken by many people across many places. It seeks to undo how we know, live, relate and comport ourselves. It seeks to undo abstractions of harm, capitalist extraction, domination and complicity. It places us in definitive relation with how, where and what we inhabit and need to claim. What is at stake, then, in this listening is the dismantling of what we think we know toward an imagination of becoming otherwise.

Listening as coming-to

We came in between cyclones, in the grey heat. The heavy wet surrounded us, and we poured onto the ground as off-season tourists, pale and excited, reading into the humidity something we craved as novel and close. Breathing in the air, our exhales carried with them demands for recognition and servitude. The coloniser song.

The pitch of voices rising with exclamations and entitlements, passed from parent to child, flowed over the quieter directions of airport staff steering us into the customs building, its concrete lines blurred against the green and haze. Inside the building a Fijian airport worker strummed a guitar in welcome, an assuaging of the weather-borne tensions. Here, the air spun slowly. Between the sweaty impatience and pushing of those who had landed, and the glances shared between officials stamping passports and security guards, the tension of this encounter was palpable.

This moment, with its familiar racisms, illustrates how much can be heard in a glance without a word being said. How to attend to these infinite tellings? There are many ways to approach listening and the relational possibilities that listening affords. Listening is complex, and has many lines of approach. Against the idea that listening is defined along an aural range of hearing that is attributed to the human, I consider listening as processes of sensing, attuning and noticing. I listen with my hands, my eyes, my skin, my gut. My body is a receptor for an atmosphere or ambiance. Listening, for me, is attention to where and how energy is transferred.

When framed as a turning towards or attending to, the practice of listening requires a change in disposition on the part of the listener, not necessarily to a stance of preparation or intervention, but to a willingness to be present with whatever comes. This is not an active listening, or a therapeutic listening because it dissolves the authority of the listener to determine what is being heard in a definitive way. It leaves the listener in perpetual recognition of not knowing. To both acknowledge and sit with what one brings, and at the same to continually let go of what one imagines is being said based on your own ideas of what you bring, requires a near constant navigation.

Listening is coming to somewhere. It is coming to a place, in a context, in an environment, on land. When we arrived in Fiji, we carried with us our whole world. We brought our histories and complicities and these tumbled out through our mouths and gestures as expectations and demands. To arrive as a tourist is to arrive already known to those who are required to serve. To arrive as a white tourist into a country that has been colonised, and is still negotiating and untangling the economies and cultures of white supremacy, is to always be coupled with injustice and harm. To arrive at any national border as a transgender person is to apprehend punitive disclosure. How one feels about this is neither here nor there, it is as it is. The question is whether one turns into it or away.

To come through listening is to immerse oneself in how these worlds meet. It is to be present to what conditions this meeting as such. Coming to takes place across a threshold. Between here and there. Listening to this movement across the threshold helps you to configure how you comport yourself. Are you a guest, a stranger, kin, family? Is your presence invited? Unwanted? Are you where you are celebrated? What are your intentions? It asks you to be present in a body, present to how your body moves and shifts the environment through relation.

To be present in this way dislocates abstraction, it disavows any pretence that you are impartial, inconsequential. It takes away objectivity. This way of listening can be very uncomfortable because it is the recognition of oneself as always in relation to others, in all of its forms; a recognition makes one vulnerable through troubling the narrative of self as control. While there are always desires to escape the hauntings attached to us, listening reminds me that my body is always collective and historical. It reminds me of my lineages. And this is necessary, particularly when there is a tendency to erase and forget that the dispossession, exploitation and extraction that these lineages bring are ongoing. Listening is coming to a place as who you are, and who you are perceived to be, in relation to where you are and accepting that this is never benign, and nor is it arbitrary. In fact it is the very ground from which one unfolds and must be prioritised.

Because we are never just one thing and no encounter is ever just one thing, listening is a practice composed by and through difference. Listening tells us that there are infinite ways that encounters happen and infinite interpretations. What listening does is offer a pause for these variations to be tended to. It creates an opening for suspension (being-with), it gives no answers and offers no absolution – there is no end or conclusion to be drawn. While it situates it also takes away certainty of thought. It questions overrepresentation and analysis.  It makes one aware without needing to know what comes next.  It shows us how we story where we are because we always hear things from where we are. What I take from this is a knowledge that my body inhabits space and that space inhabits my body, that I am always in relation, but I don’t know what that relation is. I can presume, of course. But there is no knowing.

Listening is not a prescription for anything, it is antithetical to prescription because perhaps it is simply a willingness to see where things go. It is approaching encounters without anticipation or expectation with an awareness of, but not attachment to, what one brings and how your presence may change or charge the air. It is being generous toward mishearing, misunderstanding, projection, confusion, undoing. This is why listening takes something from you. Because it confronts you with ambiguity, at the same time as the very materiality of being in a body.

When we got up to the counter at customs the official barely paid us attention. She was laughing with her colleague sitting next to her about something that wasn’t for us to share. Where are you going? she said as she stamped my passport. To Suva for a while, I answered and she mentioned her sister that lived there and that there was a lot to do, with the markets and such. She wished us a safe trip down. The singer kept singing and the line clustered forwards. We passed through and the next tourist took our place.

AM Kanngieser is a geographer and sound artist. Climates of Listening is an ongoing conversation and collaboration with predominantly women, queer and transgender people in the Pacific (Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru and Papua New Guinea) working toward environmental and social justice. Using sonic ethnographies, they centre relations between people and ecosystems by weaving together fieldrecordings, oral testimonies, poetry, song, music and radio composition. Through this, they seek to amplify multifaceted and changing community narratives and responses to neo-colonial extraction, ecocide and climate change.