Laura Gallo Tapias
MSc Psychiatry
BLUE Fellow
Understanding listening as ethical and politcal encountering of others
BLUE Fellow


Laura is a Colombian graduate student in the Division of Social and Transcultural Psychiatry, currently conducting her research on intersectionality and refugee mental health. She has backgrounds in literature and psychology with a special focus on feminism, social justice and ethics. She is interested in exploring the crossroads between social sciences, humanities and art, especially in contexts of social conflict or tension. Her BLUE project seeks to analyze the ethical and philosophical concerns that intersect with practical and political aspects of encountering others. By examining examples from various disciplines, such as sensory and performance studies, she proposes to understand listening not only as an act of auditory perception but also as an intentional, corporeal and relational disposition to others.

Listening and Encountering Others

In his book I swear I saw this, the anthropologist Michael Taussig makes the following distinction: “They say science has two phases: the imaginative logic of discovery, followed by the harsh discipline of proof. Yet proof is elusive when it comes to human affairs; a social nexus is not a laboratory, laws of cause and effect are trivial when it comes to the soul, and the meaning of events and actions is to be found elsewhere, as in the mix of emotion and reasoning that took the anthropologist on her or his travels in the first place”. (Taussig, 2011, p. xi). He presents us with an understanding of drawing as a bodily gesture that goes beyond the act of seeing: born of doubt in the act of perception, the creation of an image through precise movements of the hand, through the conjuring of fragmented bits and pieces of memory, bears witness to the singular experience of the ethnographer. Because “theory can never do justice to the contingent, the concrete, the particular” (p. 6), he proposes to bring the focus on this first phase of the research process, that is, the enactment of imagination, the being-in-the-world of the researcher. This text represents, then, my personal attempt to give an account of this part of my process.

In what follows, I will try to pinpoint not my findings (truth be told, I don’t have any) but, rather, some aspects of the intuitive and experiential process that is still ongoing in me and that stems from a set of concerns that has been central in my professional and personal life for about a decade: how do we encounter someone else’s singular subjectivity? How do we hold space for the multiplicity of personal and collective narratives, experiences and identities that inhabit the world? How do we mindfully and respectfully create this fragile and sometimes precarious in-between? And, echoing Susan Sontag, how do we take an ethical stance regarding the pain of others?

I initially conceived this project as a way to critically reflect on the practical and social implications of listening. I tried to think of listening as a bodily disposition, as a way of bearing witness to otherness. This interest was enticed by my reading of Adriana Cavarero’s book For More Than One Voice: Towards a Philosophy of Vocal Expression. In it, she advocates for “an ontology that concerns the incarnate singularity of every existence insofar as she or he manifests her- or himself vocally” (Cavarero, 2005, p. 7).  She suggests that we think about the human condition, which is essentially relational, in terms of the “saying” instead of the “said”. (p.8) More than about the content of speech, listening is about the utterance in the flesh, the claim to existence of a unique being, and the possibility of it being perceived and acknowledged by another ultimately particular other. I started wondering, then: how could this become an ethos in my practice of listening?

“I initially conceived this project as a way to critically reflect on the practical and social implications of listening. I tried to think of listening as a bodily disposition, as a way of bearing witness to otherness.”

As I started delving into these enquiries, I realized how deeply, viscerally implicated I was in them; the question, for me, was both personal and political, rather than solely academic. In order to address the former, I turned my curiosity into an artistic exploration, instead of a scientific one. I decided to call my attention to the experiential aspects of my interactions with others. This led me to engage in an ethnographic exercise of attending what I called “contexts of listening”, that is, social spaces and rituals where directing one’s attention towards another person is considered relevant for that interaction to happen. By means of a listening journal and a recorder, I documented my adventures, which included listening to sound meditations, going to theater plays, watching movies, reading books, admiring nature, engaging in conversations, interviewing people, and participating as an observer in settings such as psychiatric interviews, classrooms, workshops and music concerts.

To tackle the latter, namely, the political aspects of this notion of bearing a faithful testimony to alterity in the context of an embodied relationality, I turned to Michel de Certeau’s idea of tactic (De Certeau, 1984), which refers to the unstructured, uninstitutionalized and intersubjective practices that we as individuals, as “poets of our own acts” (xviii), bring to our everyday interactions as microscopic yet invaluable resistances to modern hyperconsumption and inattention. If we could pose the issue in terms of a social and political problematics of enunciation (33), could we thrive towards an emergent tactic of listening? Is it possible to take responsibility in the process of rehumanizing the encounter with others?

I saw in this process an opportunity to encourage shared practices of engaging phenomenologically and radically with others. This involved participating in and creating new spaces of commonality that would foster reflexivity around this idea of perceiving each other while also bringing the focus to the embodied and sensuous presence that we share. I looked for what the Greek anthropologist Nadja Seremetakis calls moments of stillness, experiences saturated with meaning that not only “give rise to a new or alternative perceptual landscape” (1996, p. 14) but may also “emancipate sensory experience from the social structure of silence” (p. 12). As uneventful and disorganized as these moments can be, I think that actively searching for them and allowing them to happen in everyday life should be taken as a necessary political endeavor, even if it is never fully attainable. Following Hannah Arendt’s idea of a political space as relying on the possibility of intersubjective action, or praxis, I framed my workshops as a political reappropriation of the mundane.

At some moments, the fellowship became an ethnography of the senses; at other times, I envisioned it as a performance, as an aesthetic project; finally, it was also a philosophical process of probing and experimenting with ways to deepen my own personal practice of listening in the phenomenological undertaking of putting myself in front of others.  The elusive concept that I am trying to approach strongly depends, indeed, on auditory perception. However, it exceeds it: rather than literal “hearing”, it is about responsiveness, openness, porosity, engagement. It is an exchange of breath. It is an open question. It is an invitation.

What came out of this process was the realization that, regardless of the context or the specificity of the encounter, listening depends first and foremost on the intentional attitude with which we approach that interaction. The act of welcoming the gift of someone else’s voice, which is “a marking of language by the body” (De Certeau, 1984, p. 155) cannot be a return to realism, to the literal. Moving away from the gaze, traditionally associated with scientific knowledge and masculine thought, towards the sonorous and subversive manifestation of a vocal relationality, I inevitably keep returning to poetry. Poetry doesn’t explain, it evokes. This is why I have fallen in love with the interplay between words, sounds and metaphors: because I believe that there lies the possibility of poiesis, of the creation of alternative worlds that we can inhabit together.

The humanist psychologist Bernd Jäger (1998) invites us to make a distinction between a scientific attitude of examination of natural reality and a festive attitude of ceremony in encountering others. In this festive attitude, the relationship is that of hospitality: it involves a threshold that we can cross, but demands from us that we remain mindful of the fact that we are entering a world that belongs to someone similar yet distinct from us and that we value the ritual of trespassing. So this is me, giving an account of myself, articulating my words and my voice not only as a BLUE Scholar, but as the person I am.

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