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The Ear Of The Other: Colonialism & Decolonial Listening
Emily Hansell Clark , January 23rd, 2021 09:55

In an exclusive extract from the new journal Focus on Sound, edited by Nicholas Burman, Emily Hansell Clark explores the sensory history of imperialism and enslavement

The sensory faculties – seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting – played a crucial role in the flurry of European exploration that began in the fifteenth century. Making sense of encounters in Africa, Asia, and the Americas required expanding the limits of the known to encompass elements of human and nonhuman life that challenged the boundaries of European imagination. Listening to human and nonhuman sounds and documenting them in writing for audiences back home helped explorers to conceive of the world outside Europe. It also served to justify European domination and subjugation of that “new world”; what Europeans heard as the wild voices of uncivilized places seemed to cry out for Europe’s guiding and civilizing hand. This took the form of colonization: a centuries-long global project with economic, juridical, theological, epistemological, and sensory dimensions.

A theme that emerges from the written archives of “discovery” concentrated in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries is the boundary between the domains of the human and the nonhuman – or rather, the repeated sensory challenges to that boundary as it was understood to exist by Europeans. Reports from explorers such as Sir Francis Drake, Jean de Léry, Hans Sloane, John Stedman, and Alexander von Humboldt describe the sounds made by birds, animals, and Indigenous people who, to European ears, often sounded more animal than human. For Europeans, humans producing nonhuman sounds signified a deeply inferior condition, sounding barbarous and uncivilized. For people elsewhere in the world, not (yet) governed by European epistemological categories, the acts of mimicking, singing to, and audibly communicating with animals and spirits reflected a worldview that understood the domains of the human and the nonhuman, and the relation between them, in a profoundly different way.

Colonialism took varied forms across different European empires in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. The plantation system of colonialism established in the Americas by the seventeenth century, fuelled by the forced labor of enslaved Africans and Afro-descendants, shaped and was shaped by European understandings of human and nonhuman worlds and their respective soundscapes. On the plantation, human life and labour and the nonhuman environment were carved up into isolatable, extractable, disposable, and reproducible resources (marking the beginning of the still-ongoing era that some, such as Donna Haraway and Anna Tsing, have called the “Plantationocene”, which links plantation colonialism, racial capitalism, and contemporary climate crisis). To Europeans, the sounds of Black bodies labouring, dwelling, and musicking in plantation settings seemed to sonically confirm their inferior status, contrasting with established European notions of what civilized music and civilized life sounded like. For example, Afro-descendant musicking on the plantation was typically heard by colonial ears as a functional sonic practice connected to the physical immediacy of rhythm, labour, and unrestrained emotion – in contrast to perceived qualities of European music such as melody, formal aesthetics, and rational tonal systems. Further, ascribing these qualities to European music seemed to connect European people with a cultural history through which a language of sonic expression developed over time; Afro-descendants, in contrast, were widely thought to be lacking any form of continuous cultural practice (until the mid-twentieth century, when American anthropologist Melville Herskovits first attempted to disprove this myth by analysing and comparing African and diasporic Afro-descendant songs). Thus, on and off the plantation, European listening to Black sounding was deeply entangled with what Alexander Weheliye calls the “pernicious logics of racialisation… that discipline humanity into full humans, not-quite-humans, and nonhumans.”

Indeed, over centuries of colonialism in its various forms, encounters between Europeans and Europe's various ‘others’ reinscribed sonic epistemologies that related European hearings of different humans making different sounds back to European categories and hierarchies of personhood. What types of humans made what types of sounds, and what did this mean for Europeans’ self-perceived roles and responsibilities in the world? Notions such as what constituted a legitimate voice, melody, or tonal system mapped onto European ideas of culture, rationality, and history and contrasted with sounds that were perceived as uncivilized, degenerate, or inhuman. This is evident, for example, in the broad conceptual division between “music” – primarily European in origin – and “noise”, those incomprehensible sounds from elsewhere in the world. Noise became both a perceptual and legal category, used to govern the performance of (non-European) cultural tradition and (non-Judeo-Christian) religious ritual. Sounds from elsewhere that were recognizable as musical – though typically heard as inferior to European music – seemed to give voice to forms of existence that were recognizably human, but in a lower form than the fully developed humanity of modern Europeans.

Sonic Colonialism in Suriname

My own research on Dutch colonial policy in Suriname provides an example of these sonic colonial logics in action. When the system of enslaving Afro-descendants for plantation labor became untenable in 1863, the colonial government ‘recruited’ people from British India and the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) as a replacement labour force of indentured workers. Indonesian culture had long been a subject of Dutch scholarship, including investigations into musical traditions – the most prominently featured being the gamelan, a pitched percussion orchestra of bronze keyed instruments and gongs connected to the royal court centres of Central Java. In colonial documents, it is evident that hearing Indonesians as connected to an ancient, melodic musical tradition led to differential treatment of them as labourers by the Dutch. Unlike enslaved Afro-descendants, Asian groups, with what were heard to be legitimate (though still incommensurable with European) cultural traditions, were allowed to play their own musics, speak their own languages, and practice their own religions on Surinamese plantations. While this did not merit wholly humane treatment – in practice, “indentured” was not far from “enslaved” – it did redirect the broad approach to governing colonial difference in Suriname, namely from one of assimilation (i.e., free Afro-descendants were forced to become Christian and to speak Dutch) to one of apartheid (i.e., Asian groups were permitted to live in self-governing isolation).

Today in Suriname, like elsewhere in the Caribbean and Latin America, musical and cultural performance are key forms of participation in the “ethnically plural” postcolonial nation. At public celebrations of official national holidays such as the Days of Chinese, Indian, and Indonesian Arrival, members of these ethnic groups perform their inherited cultural traditions onstage, thereby claiming an essential role in the history and demographic composition of the nation. Similarly, since Suriname's system of political parties falls largely along ethnic lines, traditional music such as gamelan is performed at political rallies to foster a sense of ethnic solidarity. In these contexts, music can be heard to signify a notion of static, inherited ethnic difference, traceable back to different geographies of historical origin following essentialist logics, in contrast with the dynamic, fluid relationships that contemporary individuals have with music, cultural tradition, and hybrid forms of identity. And despite a rhetoric of celebrated diversity and unity-in-difference, Suriname still suffers from structural inequalities between its population groups that stem from their differing histories as colonial labor forces. For example, in recent decades, groups of Maroons (Afro-descendants whose ancestors escaped plantations) and Indigenous people in Suriname’s interior have been forced off the lands their ancestors have occupied for centuries due not only to resource extraction, but also to well-intentioned environmental conservation projects and carbon offset programs spearheaded by foreign Euro-American organizations. Unlike other population groups in Suriname, these interior-dwelling groups have been denied legal ownership of their own land by the Surinamese government – a policy that is deeply related to the inability of European (and European-educated) policy-making ears to hear these groups’ audible expressions of culture, agency, and personhood.

Decolonial Listening

Colonial logics continue to resonate through contemporary listening practices all over the world, shaping what is perceived as noise versus music, and how these categories of sound are governed and consumed, respectively. (Take, for example, the policing of the Islamic call to prayer in the Western world, or the sonic consumption of safe, commodified forms of difference at a “world music” festival.) How can sound scholarship, and acts of listening, serve to challenge colonial logics of differential humanness rather than continue to reinscribe them? One approach is to listen to – that is, to direct attention towards – various voices that deconstruct colonial logics, coming from Caribbean philosophy, the Latin American decolonial turn, Black feminist theory, and Indigenous scholarship, to name a few possibilities. For sociologist Rolando Vázquez, a scholar of the decolonial, for example, listening means hearing the fundamental relationality of all entities before they are formed into subjects and objects through racial, economic, and extractivist logics; listening is a way to perceive and attend to the alternative voices silenced by modernity.

But sound and listening are not just metaphors, in the sense of “hearing the voices” (that is, recognizing the political agency) of others. Every instance of actual, particular listening – to oneself, to other humans, to the nonhuman world – is an act shaped by specific, contingent histories of understanding sound, self, and other. Making visible (or audible) a centuries-long colonial history of sound helps to contextualise actual, individual instances of listening not as a matter of “common sense”, a form of direct sensory access to the external world, but rather as acts shaped by listeners’ situatedness in time, place, and worldview. The point is not that boundaries between music and noise, rhythm and melody, speech and song, human and nonhuman, audible and inaudible should not be thought or perceived, but rather that there have always been different ways of negotiating the limits of and relations between such notions and what they indicate about the possibilities for, and ethics of, sharing the world with others.

Through colonialism, European categories became the loudest, most dominant system of perceiving and organizing human and nonhuman worlds. But the soundscapes and sonic logics of cities, villages, plantations, rainforests, and other places are not singular; rather, they are multiple and relational. Colonial, postcolonial, and decolonial logics mingle, clash, and otherwise resonate through the sounds of people occupying space and conducting contemporary daily life. Making audible these different modes of sounding and listening reminds us that there is a multiplicity of ways to hear a self and the various humans and nonhumans with whom it shares the world, and to conceive of the relations that exist between these entities – including modes of sonic perception that have always resisted colonization.

Focus on Sound, edited by Nicholas Burman, is available from the Focus website