Toward an Ethic of Listening

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 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,

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,, 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,, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 1999, accessed December 23, 2013.

Comments 111

  • @ Martin

    Heehee. Thank you. Just doin’ my jawb.. :-)

    So, the first version ‘scary’, the second ‘bomb’..

    Thing is, if you see it in another, then what about in one’s self ?
    Make the space empty and watch to see what enters.. the sequential changes.. this theatre..

    Every culture known, from all times and places, has mapped the territory. We have the records. From alfheim to the astral plane and much more..

    The only culture known that denies that there is any such territory to be mapped is the Western materialist/scientific Cartesian one, which says there is nothing but ‘thinking’ and ‘psychology’, and has possibly the crudest, clumsiest, most brutish, least subtle of all understandings of what it means to be a human being that there has ever been, and produces individuals who are almost completely insensitive to their own existence.

    I think what happened, with the advent of the founding of science, was that the spiritual domain got handed to the Church, and they had no idea what to do with it. The last three centuries they just tried to retain what they had back then. Science married Capitalism and grabbed The Material World. Now everything is ruined.

    What can be done about this ? Everyday I am here on NBL…

    The diagnosis, the prognosis, the foregone conclusion..

    Send Angels to the Four Quarters ?

  • @ Martin

    Indeed, you deserve another thank you, so many wonders you bestowed..

    Good Morning ! :-) Effing L, Hahahaha

  • This video that I posted above, sinister imagery, owls, dwarves, blackmen, knives, suggesting violence, voodoo, some threat, basically garbage to make money appealing to a certain market that they’ve identified.

    It’s what the culture that we live in does, constantly eating itself, every hint of interest that anybody shows in anything gets grabbed and amplified and hyped and sold back to us, the marketers making the market, squeezing out every penny they can.. fashionably decadent and cool to be depraved, like heroin chic and supermodels with bulemia..

    Anyway, I was thinking about your remark, Martin, about magic being reification.

    I don’t think that’s quite correct.

    I think magic can be viewed or defined in many different ways, depending on your belief system or paradigm or how you frame your starting point, but I’d see reification as giving a false reality to an abstraction.

    So an example would be seeing bad events, and calling them evil and ascribing that quality to an entity, the devil or some other personified creation with features and form. Likewise, good, and angels, and so forth. Perhaps that’s not your conception of magical ?

    Anyway, that’s not my conception of how this stuff works or what’s going on.

    We have many different theories to draw upon, Jung, buddhism, modern psychology, paranthropology, McKenna, Sheldrake, Kling’s aliens, etc, etc. I have worked through them all.

    It is an extremely difficult and complicated area to talk about, but absolutely fascinating, because it is cutting edge, like quantum physics, there is no consensus, just, to use your phrase, ‘high weirdness’.

    Where does one even begin ? I used to think that, given the risk to personal sanity, it was important to fix a solid peg in the ground to which one could be confident of a safe return.

    This would be the speliological strategy, with me playing the role of Theseus. My peg would be modern science and reason.

    That has proven a failure. Modern science took me to Descartes and then to Aristotle. My peg worked loose.

    I was left holding the peg, which would not hold firm in the rational scientific sand. Iain McGilchrist explained why. My brain is split in twain.

    Peter Kingsley told me about Parmenides and Empedocles…

    The stories, the stories… Have I missed any ? I don’t think so.

    I think I have covered everything that is known.. I think I have all the maps..

  • @ ulvfugl

    Well, of course you’re right about reification. The many hundreds of times I’ve had occasion to use the work, I’ve always used it pejoratively, in the time-honoured Marxist fashion. But I thought I’d take a quick gamble on using it neutrally to mean making happen on the physical plane what was squarely in the imagination, as did Phil Legard …

    I know nothing about magic, or “magick” (sigh). But standing on the beach of doom it’s nice to pick things up and say, “My God, this really is interesting.” This is perhaps the only time in history when it’s okay to be a dilettante or even a poseur. Isn’t it?

    I expect you will tell me otherwise.

  • @ Martin

    No, no, Martin, I shall not tell you otherwise. I shall confound your expectations. I have devoted hours to thinking deeply about this idea of reification, and as you say, it took me to Marx, fetishization, and Mauss, subjectification, and the symbolization of religious emotions, and a whole dizzy array of ideas… the most spectacular of which, I have to say, was the tupilaq, which it is said, was made partly from parts of dead children, and given additional potency by sexual engagement, and then… well, kinda heavy metal stuff, anyone will agree, I’m sure… not in front of the, erm, live children.. & nsfw

    This being an example of the reification of an abstract idea, you see… am I right ? and therefore fitting your definition of magic ?

  • @ ulvfugl

    Oh no. I can see now that it is easy to make fun of “my” definition of magic. It’s not my idea, anyway, but your friend Phil Legard. If it is true that reality is “what you can get away with,” then the reality is that magic is not reification. Therefore, chastened, I withdraw the statement.

    In a similar vein, I once intoned, “Every book is a hypostasis,” and the person opposite me nodded vigorously, so you see it is sometimes possible to get a half-baked idea to fly. I mean hypostasis something like your “symbolization of religious emotions,” rather than the narrow theological definition. Something like Alan W Watts’s observation that we pay attention to the figure of Jesus rather than look to where he is pointing. So we cling to a well-loved book as though the magic is in the book, rather than in the reader.

  • @ Martin

    Oh, I wasn’t making fun of you or your idea, although, yes, no, it wasn’t your, idea, and, yes, no, he’s not a friend, just some geography guy or other…

    No, I’m seriously, serious about this, I spent hours today. Here, please scroll up a paragraph or so, ‘Emotions at micro level’

    We appear to be on the same wavelength, which itself is magic, of a kind.

  • @ ulvfugl

    I know you weren’t making fun of me and that Legard is not your friend. I type these things thinking the recipient (you) will realise I’m saying these things in an offhand and lighthearted way, but …

    I forget that there is too much missing information in an internet exchange.

  • @ Martin

    I know. And I know. :-)

    It’s your prose style, it’s not conveying sufficient information ;-)

    I sort of assume that you teach english literature, grammar, because you seem better educated on these subjects that most.

    Anyway, I am grateful to you for the ‘reification’, because I learned, you taught me, I am indebted, I ventured down a side street I would otherwise not have bothered to enter, and it held rich rewards, as did your friend Zumbachs ‘Welcome to my Nightmares’ treasure trove of imagery, where I spent happy hours :-)

    So the tupaliq is not the REAL tupaliq, because nobody has ever seen the REAL tupaliq, because the shaman made it in secret and then set it into the sea. So all those tupaliqs are toys, replicas, impotent, faux tupaliqs, models for tourists and anthropologists to play with.

    But back to your earlier points, about this being the Beach, and it is ok to be a dilettante, and the magic is in the reader rather than the book..

    Are you aware of Michael Shanks ?

    He began as an academic archaeologist, and set out studying theoretical archaeology.

    So, rather along the lines of the epistemological issue that you have just raised, regarding the magic, whether it resides on the book or in the reader, he was concerned with the meaning of found objects, unearthed by archaeologists.

    Obviously, this is a vital and critical concern. The digger is not really looking for the object as such, as a material lump of stuff, they are looking for what that object means as part of the historical record, the human imprint upon time.

    It’s cultural artefact, and what one wants to know is ‘What does this mean ?’

    And then ‘What does this mean to us, now ?’ or ‘What did it mean to them, then ?’ Those kind of basic questions. They all revolve around meaning.

    So, the theoretical archaeologist is forced to ask ‘What IS meaning ?’
    And then, ‘Where precisely, should we look for it ?’

    And, of course, the rather terrifying answer is, you don’t look for it in the ground, by digging holes and finding stuff. As you’ve already realised, the magic is in the reader’s mind. The meaning is in the archaeologist’s mind, it’s not in the object.

    Now this is quite shocking. The more you dwell upon it, the more shocking it gets…Because, if this is true, where does it end ?

    Shanks was forced to conclude, that it meant that we can no longer say what an archaeologist IS. No logical definition is possible.
    This is a rather dreadful state of affairs, and he decided it meant that we are all archaeologists.

    Please see my comment here, and following