[ listening as care ]
Euro-American understandings of communication have emphasised having a voice as being preferable to its supposed opposite: silence. With the habit of filling up every moment of conversation as a means in which to feel acknowledged, there’s a tendency to correlate silence with absence and passivity. Yet, silence can be powerful.
The Desert it Opposes is an investigation into how silence can be employed as a transformative tool to exercise mutual listening. Its intention is to facilitate non-hierarchical forms of group exchange as a first step towards creating inclusive spaces within a collective.
With the awareness that silence is relational—its meaning is affected and affects social relationships on the basis of cultural factors—the project enhances the positive capacity of silence to interfere with existing hidden hierarchies in conversation. Intentional changes of these invisible protocols can create possibilities for mutual listening and collective care, playing with rules as generators of new collaborative approaches and tools for self-organising. In this text I share a few of the protocols developed during the research, some of which were born out of the collaboration with Jonathan Lorand for the workshop [ arranging conversations ]. Around them I condense the theory and thoughts that led to the project. The exercises can function as a form of training to listen better and encourage openness towards different perspectives.
Themes: Care, Self-organising, Collectivity
Methods: Artistic Practice, Conversation, Play
Inspired by Zen practices, John Cage, an American artist, and music theorist, made substantial use of silence in his pieces, precisely with the intention of drawing attention to what happens acoustically outside of what was then considered music. To him, silence is composed of any sound that is not intentionally made. Even his eccentric lectures often consisted of silences of different durations, as they open “the doors of the music to the sounds that happen to be in the environment.”
The verb to silence suggests an action of restraining or dimming an acoustic or verbal event and can be intended as an oppressive act. Taken as such, the act of silencing, whether deliberately or unknowingly, is to negate someone or something of agency and visibility, making them less noticeable. Those who lay outside the dominant norm are taken less seriously. In her book White Innocence: Paradoxes of colonialism and race, Gloria Wekker  shows how it is culturally embedded that often white people feel more entitled to speak than others in the public arena. Similarly, back in 1991, scholar bell hooks  wrote of the exclusion of black feminists from academic discourse. The explanation offered was that their work was “not theoretical enough.” 
In this sense, I came to view silence not only as a verb but also as a space of friction that puts two or more people in relation to one another. Just as Cage’s pieces were dependent on the silencing of the performer and their audience.  Despite their apparent immateriality, all sounds and voices take up space and are an attempt to be heard, usually at the cost of other sonic events. Sound has power and the ways different voices interact follow a variety of scripts, causing friction at contact.
7 Gloria Wekker, White Innocence: Paradoxes of colonialism and race (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2017), 168-173. Gloria Wekker is an Afro-Surinamese Dutch scholar, whose extensive body of work has brought questions of colonialism, race, gender, sexuality and diaspora to the forefront of critical scholarship on the Netherlands and the Dutch Empire.
8 bell hooks is an African American feminist activist, professor, and writer. Her books look at the function of race and gender in popular culture, education, art, history, and sexuality.
9 bell hooks’ approach is one that strives at uniting theory and practice. To her, theory should help individuals integrate feminist thinking in everyday life, hence she writes often from personal experience, “from the concrete,” choosing a writing style that speaks to the widest audience possible. This clashes with the usual assumption that scholarly writing should be objective, impersonal and should use very formal language. “Theory as Liberatory Practice,” Yale Journal of Law & Feminism (1991), 4.
10 Kahn, "John Cage: Silence and Silencing," 560.
“Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion.”  Scholar Jo Freeman has analysed these dynamics within proclaimed horizontal and leaderless groups, where she observed how informal elites  form because of a lack of explicit structure. The resulting exchange of information produces a lack of accountability, because “as long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few, and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules.” 
This is reflected in the conversational dynamics of a group, as every type of verbal exchange has an inherent protocol, concerning its content, aim, rhythm and the roles of its participants. While it’s obvious that call centres communications follow specific scripted patterns, and it is accepted that there are unambiguous procedures of interaction in a courtroom, at a parliamentary debate and within other formal institutions, other patterns fail to be recognised. Again and again seemingly informal exchanges also assume, maintain and reiterate a form. I could see this happen among my peers during my studies: one of the usual outspoken and more extroverted students would often take the stage. After a few months of being in class together, inadvertently assumptions had been built around who would for sure have something to say, without leaving much room for hesitation and reflection before jumping into the conversation.
The scripts of conversation pertaining to different contexts are often implicit, invisible, yet everyone has learned and embodied them. This is because protocols, too, are informed by cultural, racial, historical, and power settings. They are produced by and reproduce them.
Artists Antonas and Thanos Zartaloudis  argue that even if a protocol consists of a closed set of replicable rules, it is admittedly understood as fabricated and therefore ductile: it can be challenged and modified. Every action in life is scripted in a protocol and being aware of the protocol makes it possible to perceive the script as an empty recipient of new and different performances. 
Indeed, intentionally bending protocols of conversation can interfere with the existing social dynamics within a specific group. Each participant can train their ability to hold silence, listen to the other carefully, and notice their capacity for doing so or lack thereof.
14 Aristide Antonas is a writer and an architect. His art and architecture work has been featured, among other places, at documenta 14 in Kassel, the Istanbul Design Biennial, and the Venice Biennale.
Thanos Zartaloudis studied Common Law and European Legal Studies. He writes on theory and history, philosophy, ancient philology, and architectural theory and history. He works as a Reader in Legal Theory and History at the University of Kent, School of Law and as a lecturer and doctoral advisor in History and Theory of Architecture at the Architectural Association.
15 Aristide Antonas and Thanos Zartaloudis, “Protocols for a Life of the Ordinary,” e-flux. https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/positions/204038/protocols-for-a-life-of-the-ordinary/ (Accessed: 3 November 2020).
This is not to say that spontaneous dialogues must be avoided at all costs, nor that protocols can always ensure a fair and qualitatively desirable outcome of every conversation, as excessive use of them might result in a very rigid and formal exchange, where there’s no space for serendipity, unplanned tangents and jokes. Interruptions and overlaps are not inherently bad, as they can favour words and gestures of empathy.
Recently, feminist thinkers have been offering new perspectives on silence by shedding light on the potentialities that lie within it, rather than its oppressive functionality.
Indeed, for a person to be silent is to inevitably create the possibility for another to speak and at the same time, to be silent is the precondition for listening. Caroline Godart  writes on the concept of the interval developed by Irigaray,  describing how silence can generate a form of listening through which two individuals can approach and welcome each other with their mutual otherness: “in order to truly listen, we must act from a position of complete openness and renounce our own mode of approach to the world in order to let the others unfold.”  In the context of rhetorical studies, but still reflecting on silence as a method for transformative change, Ann Russo  describes silence as a way to overcome the entitlement of white feminists, who benefit from structural advantages compared to black feminists: she proposes the tactic of “listening up” in place of “speaking up” as a way to foster true allyship. By learning to support peripheral tasks and restraining from determining the direction of the conversation, Russo envisions how embodied silence can pave the way to active listening, a practice of accountability to the work of transforming, rather than reproducing, deeply entrenched power relations.  Silence is maybe not a sufficient condition for active listening, yet it is the space in which this learning takes place. Silence is where the friction happens, where two or more subjects encounter one another and recognise each other’s differences. Giving into this friction can bring about a listening with: not a mere listening to the other, but with the other. Listening-with is a pursuit of a high degree of attention and involvement with the other, with the intention to go beyond one’s own preconception of what the other might need or be, thus allowing the other to transform oneself.
This translates into practice through the learning process of allowing one’s ideals to be withheld momentarily, to unfold spaces of understanding and well-being across personal differences.
In short, listening-with is a form of care, a listening in relation. This shift from the individual sphere to the shared sphere is a fundamental aspect of care that is often forgotten in contemporary Western notions of self-care, where it has become the responsibility of the individual, who is thought to be able to buy care and to have all needs met. Care is instead a form of labour that materialises in interdependence. To give care one needs someone who accepts the care, to speak meaningfully one needs someone that listens.
Silence, listening and care alike are relational practices grounded in mutuality that can help move towards more generous and equitable conceptions of caregiving and create acceptance for care receiving.
16 Caroline Godart is an editor, dramaturge, scholar and educator based in Bruxelles. She studied philosophy, feminist and queer thought, cinema and literature at Rutgers University in New York.
17 Luce Irigaray is a Belgian-born French feminist, philosopher, linguist, psycholinguist, psychoanalyst and cultural theorist who examined the uses and misuses of language in relation to women.
18 Caroline Godart, "Silence and Sexual Difference: Reading Silence in Luce Irigaray." DiGeSt. Journal of Diversity and Gender Studies, no. 2 (2016), 16.
19 Ann Russo is the Director of the Women's Center and a Professor in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies. Her scholarship, teaching, and organizing focus on queer, antiracist, and feminist movement building to end violence and to build socially just and caring communities. Integral to her work is exploring the praxis of building alliances and coalitions for social change.
20 Ann Russo, “Feminist Accountability: Disrupting Violence and Transforming Power,” in Silence, Feminism, Power Reflections at the Edges of Sound, ed. Sheena Malhotra and Aimee Carrillo Rowe (Palgrave Macmillan: Northridge, 2013), 34-48.
Circling back to the understanding of protocols as ductile containers, and how they are produced inter-subjectively, they can function as counter-hegemonic practices. A practice of silence can facilitate a shift in personal behaviours that can hopefully ferment a culture of mutual care and listening-with. Furthermore, enacting listening-with protocols can result in a collective and entangled understanding of society, rather than one composed of separated individuals. Starting from the small scale, breaking, and reassembling protocols can take many forms and be applied in situations of conflict, within communities, institutions, classrooms, and workplaces.
Protocols for listening-with are an attempt to promote relational and collaborative approaches in place of competitive ones, not as an all-encompassing solution, but as a step towards carving out these very necessary basins of silence and propagate a practice of being open and accountable to each other.
download the protocols here
Thanks to Yanna, Deepak, Jan, Jerlyn, Nicolae, Charlotte, Joanna, who participated in the [ arranging conversations ] workshop and came up with the Double Role and Rotating Role protocol. Many thanks to Jonathan for the ongoing thoughts exchange on all matters of conversation and silence, and for contributing significantly to the protocols and their translation into practice.
The Desert It Opposes
by Eleonora Toniolo
The Desert It Opposes is a MAPP Lab initiated by Eleonora Toniolo. She is an interdisciplinary designer—in the midst of social, graphic and product design—with an inclination towards creating relational experiences. A natural collaborator and aggregator herself, she strives to understand ways of doing and living together, so her work is often entangled with community building and maintenance processes. Her latest projects seek to activate simple gestures of collective care, which translated into learning tools and workshops.
How has working with silence influenced your go-to modes of communication, and ways of working collectively with others?
I’ve started being more aware of my habit of formulating conclusions too early and completing other’s sentences: when I pose a question to a group now, I tend to leave more time for elaboration and answer, holding a bit of silence before I intervene, to welcome seemingly tangential responses. In addition, having the knowledge of these modes and tools for conversation, I am less shy about employing them and I am eager to try out new methods and proposals from others when the opportunity arises.
I think that the process of working with silence and School of Commons has also taught me to accept that in the process of developing a project, be it alone or collectively, it’s okay to go through a phase where you feel you have little control and understanding over what you are doing. That the collective mess in between can be a slow but fertile ground. The same way silence can teach to sit with the not-knowing for a moment.