by Vincent Kelley, a radical activist, student, musician, and meditator who currently attends Grinnell College in Iowa and is an organizer with One Struggle.
Can you remember the last time you just listened? For those of us in this culture, it is often difficult to answer this question. Rarely do we take the time to truly listen to the rhythms and cycles of the natural world, our ever-present breath, or the speech of another human being. Are we missing something when we fail to listen? In the pages that follow, I suggest that listening can provide a foundation for an ethical and storied relationship with the human and more-than-human world. First, I will describe how a lack of listening manifests itself, namely, in patriarchy and the Western scientific worldview. Second, I will give an account of listening as a mindfulness practice. Third, I will explain how an ethic of listening, if you will, challenges patriarchy and scientific epistemology. Finally, I will offer a reflection on how we may develop an ethic of listening.
One of the ideological mechanisms of patriarchy is the objectification of women. Indeed, radical feminist Andrea Dworkin sees the struggle against objectification as the essence of the feminist project: “It is true, and very much to the point, that women are objects, commodities, some deemed more expensive than others — but it is only by asserting one’s humanness every time, in all situations, that one becomes someone as opposed to something. That, after all, is the core of our struggle.”i What, then, does an “object” consist in? Philosopher Martha Nussbaum identifies seven “notions” that allow a person to treat another as an object: instrumentality, denial of autonomy, inertness, fungibility, violability, ownership, and denial of subjectivity.ii These notions are ideologically crucial in the objectification of women under patriarchy: only by inscribing them upon women as a class can men as a class justify their violence and domination.
But there is something else that underlies and is bolstered by these seven notions: the refusal to listen. Two of them merit further discussion in order to make this link. Take inertness. If something is inert, it is reducible to its constituent parts, thereby rendered a mere mechanistic entity as opposed to a being, a legitimate ‘other’ meriting moral consideration. For Nussbaum, an inert object lacks agency. In our context, the capacity to speak can be subsumed under the category of agency. And, as feminist legal scholar Catherine MacKinnon bluntly states, “Objects do not speak.”iii By denying the capacity for speech — which is, in essence, the refusal to listen — the objectifier silences the objectified. This is the core of what I call inertification, a topic to which I will soon return.
The denial of subjectivity is also a manifestation of the refusal to listen. Nussbaum defines this denial thus: “The objectifier treats the object as something whose experience and feelings (if any) need not be taken into account.”iv We could also say that the object’s experience and feelings are subsumed under the ‘objective’ view of the objectifier. In other words, the existence of an ‘other’ with different experiences and feelings is rendered impossible — only the objectifier’s experience is validated. Why listen to others when your experience is all that matters — when your experience is all there is? Obversely, how would you know that other subjective experiences exist if you don’t listen for them?v
As we can intuitively see, when people are treated as objects, normative issues necessarily arise.vi But what if we look beyond the objectification of humans alone and scrutinize Nussbaum’s categories in relation to the more-than-human world? In other words, can treating as objects what actually are objects in the Western scientific worldview also present normative problems? Reflecting on this question, I have found it fruitful to turn to the work of animist philosopher David Abram. For Abram, animism — the worldview and way of being that understands what he calls the “more-than-human world” to be alive, dynamic, and sensate, a world in which spirit inheres in materiality — is intimately linked to the actions of speaking and listening. He maintains that “the animate terrain is not just speaking to us but also listening to us.” Drawing on phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s account of perception as a process of reciprocal, two-way flow, Abram further contends that “to listen to the forest is also, primordially, to feel oneself listened to by the forest, just as to gaze at the surrounding forest is to feel oneself exposed and visible, to feel oneself watched by the forest.”vii Abram’s animism thus throws into question the presuppositions of “conventional scientific discourse [and] … New Age spiritualism,” both of which reinforce “the distinction between human ‘subjects’ and natural ‘objects.’”viii Perhaps the root problem, then, is the category of ‘object’ itself, rather than objectification, the latter which can be understood in this context as an effect of the underlying idea of objecthood.
Here, it is useful to return to the aforementioned concept of inertification, my term, informed by Nussbaum, for the process of rendering a thing or being inert in order to establish its status as an object. For the non-animist, solely the inertification of beings — typically only human beings — presents a normative problem. But for the animist, the thing / being, subject / object binary is understood as a false dichotomy. Indeed, inertification is a prefiguration of objecthood itself; objects do not exist prior to the human inscription of inertness. But is this an inscription that humans must make or have always made? Capitalists, pornographers, and scientists would like us to think so. Indeed, the normalization of inertification is a central facet of ideology that enables these groups to continue to exploit and abuse without mass resistance.ix
Not all cultures have inertified their surrounding environs or, as our culture has gone so far as to do, inertify marginalized groups of humans. Indigenous author and scholar Vine Deloria asserts that “… Indians experience and relate to a living universe, whereas Western people, especially scientists, reduce all things, living or not, to objects.”x He continues:
In order to maintain the fiction that the world is dead and that those who believe it to be alive have succumbed to primitive superstition, science must reject any interpretation of the natural world that implies sentience or an ability to communicate on the part of non-humans. Science insists, at a great price in understanding, that the observer be as detached as possible from the event he or she is observing. Contrast that with the attitude of indigenous people, who recognize that humans must participate in events, not isolate themselves.
Indeed, Western science is not a value-neutral pursuit; its fundamental methodology — a methodology premised on detachment from interrelationship and a concomitant denial of our inherence in the natural world — is diametrically opposed to the indigenous-animistic worldview of which Deloria speaks. But in the twilight of the scientific idol we can find the rebirth of animism and, along with it, an ethics founded on listening.
When Abram writes of the animate Earth “not just speaking to us but also listening to us,” we find an incipient gesture toward an animistic ethics. When the multifarious beings surrounding us can listen, we must be humble in their presence, even if no humans are nearby. Ethics thus becomes a living practice of mindfulness of the voices and perceptive capacities of all the material world in which we live; no actions are out of sight and, therefore, none are out of mind. But to adopt this ethics, we must also listen — relationship, by definition, cannot be one-sided. Deloria maintains that indigenous people can “obtain knowledge from birds, animals, rivers, and mountains that is inaccessible to modern science,” but, for others to also do this, they must first “absolutely reject the idea of forcing nature to reveal its secrets and instead begin to observe nature and listen to its rhythms” (emphasis mine).xi Hence, in a culture already marred by scientific reductionism, our task is one of both unlearning and relearning, a task that is only possible when the scientific control-imperative is relinquished and superseded by an ethic of listening.
As we have seen, listening is fundamentally a mindfulness practice, or what Jewish theologian Michael Fishbane calls “sacred attunement.” Fishbane contends that “[t]he capacity to listen with attention and humility is a spiritual beginning … [of] a gradual growth in religious consciousness.”xii “Attunement” and, attendantly for Fishbane, theology, is “a type of thinking [and] … a type of living,” a form of “perception and performance.”xiii But it is one that is impossible without this initial ethic of listening. He maintains that the practitioner must cultivate a “spiritually pregnant silence” before speaking. In my reading, this spiritual silence “characterized by potentiality and anticipation” is distinguished from what Fishbane calls “natural silence,” silence “characterized by the absence of noise,” by its implicit ethic of receptivity.xiv It is, in other words, an intentional, ethically-infused silence that is closely linked to — perhaps even the essence of — the humble listening praised by Fishbane. Indeed, his project is one of establishing a theology grounded in relationality, and relationality is impossible without listening.
I have argued that listening is an indispensable practice if we wish to live in relation to other humans and the more-than-human world in a rich, reciprocal, storied, and ethical manner. As we have seen, the ideologies of patriarchy and science are supported and reinforced by a refusal and, once such a refusal is normalized, learned inability to listen. Male supremacy is founded on inertification and a disregard for the subjective experiences of women. Similarly, modern science denies our inherence in and dependence upon the natural world in its effort to erect an objective subject who studies an inert, feelingless object. The ramification of these ideologies is systemic violence against, in these particularities, women and the natural world, respectively.
It is clear that misogynists and capitalists, among others, benefit from these narratives of detachment and silencing, but even those who do not fall into these categories often have a difficult time embracing an active practice of listening, a practice that is essential if we wish to move beyond tacit toleration of this culture’s atrocities. Why is this? To conclude, I will offer a brief reflection on the vulnerability that emerges from deep listening and argue that a fear of vulnerability underlies our resistance to an ethic of listening.
Christian theologian, Catherine Keller, in a relational move not unlike that of Fishbane, presents a theology grounded in an understanding of interdependence. She highlights the “as yourself” aspect of the Gospel’s exhortation to “… love God — and the neighbor as yourself,” and, following from this scriptural appeal, suggests a deeper truth: “Because we are radically interdependent, we are unbearably vulnerable to each other.”xv Herein we find the root of our fear of listening: Listening is the basis for a consciousness of interdependence; a consciousness of interdependence entails an acknowledgement of vulnerability; thus, by listening, we open ourselves to vulnerability, which is a sate that our enculturation teaches us to resist. If I have convinced you as to why we need to listen, we can now move to the difficult work of learning how to listen. Following Keller’s insight, an embracement of vulnerability may be the key in reviving an ethic of listening in a culture that has all but driven it to extinction. But to embrace vulnerability we must relinquish what the Buddha calls the “’I’-making or ‘mine’-making,” that leads to our incessant reassertion of the egoistic “obsession of conceit” that underlies our personal and collective suffering.xvi And how do we do this? The practice of listening is one method, or, more precisely, way of being, toward this end. This is a mutually-reinforcing process: We must cultivate selflessness in order to listen and must listen in order to cultivate selflessness. This is a true ethic of listening, one which we should develop if we wish to live ethical lives and put an end to the atrocities that result from the failure to listen on an interpersonal and social scale.
Listen. Just listen.
iAndrea Dworkin, Woman Hating (New York: Penguin Books, 1974), 83.
iiMartha C. Nussbaum, “Objectification,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 24(4) (Fall 1995): 249–291.
iiiCatherine A. MacKinnon, “Francis Biddle’s Sister: Pornography, Civil Rights, and Speech,” in Kelly Weisberg ed., Applications of Feminist Legal Theory to Women’s Lives: Sex, Violence, Work, and Reproduction (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996), 64.
ivNussbaum, “Objectification,” 257.
vWhen I speak of “subjective experience,” I do not understand such experience to be autonomous or unconditioned by (objective) social totality, to use the language of historical materialist theorists.
viThis is more in line with the Dworkin-MacKinnon position on objectification than that of Nussbaum. In fact, Nussbaum argues that objectification, while generally negative, can in some cases be a positive phenomenon. See, for example, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-objectification/.
viiDavid Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 153.
viiiAbram, The Spell of the Sensuous, 66-67.
ixWhen I criticize scientists, I am referring to the majority who subscribe to the hegemonic anti-animistic epistemology that Vine Deloria attacks in his quotations later in this essay. I am fully aware that there are scientists who are not ideologues in the same way, and even some who resist the aforesaid epistemology.
xVine Deloria, “How Science Ignores The Livingworld: An interview with Vine Deloria by Derrick Jensen,” Derrick Jensen.org, http://22.214.171.124/~fenderse/Deloria.htm, accessed December 23, 2013.
xiiMichael Fishbane, Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 147.
xiiiFishbane, Sacred Attunement, xii.
xivFishbane, Sacred Attunement, 133.
xvCatherine Keller, On the Mystery: Discerning Divinity in Process (United States, Fortress Press, 2008), 80.
xviSee, for example, “SN 21.2: Upatissa Sutta: About Upatissa (Sariputta),” Access to Insight, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn21/sn21.002.than.html, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 1999, accessed December 23, 2013.