insideWoM: Slow Thinking, Listening to Colonialism, and Extractivism

This post builds on the themed issue Audibilities of Colonialism and Extractivism,  the world of music (new series) 10:2 (2021), guest-edited by Emily Hansell Clark.

Slow Thinking, Listening to Colonialism,

and Extractivism

A conversation between Emily Hansell Clark and Juan David Montoya Alzate (

In the introduction you discussed the possibilities opened by slow thinking. Can you tell us about your personal experience in putting this issue together, and how did you feel working under the slow pace the pandemic imposed on all of us?

Looking back through emails, I see that in late 2019 we started discussing the theme and submitted abstracts for a panel at the 2020 British Forum for Ethnomusicology conference, and the present journal issue grew out of that. In “academic time,” working on an idea for two years before a final published version comes to fruition is not really that long, but the personal and public events of those two years (including the pandemic, finishing my dissertation, relocating internationally) certainly made it feel longer!

Of course, for some, the pandemic created more time to work and think, and for others, any extra mindspace was occupied by worries of childcare, health, loved ones, and various insecurities and precarities. For me, in 2020-21, I taught from home and was able to spend an hour or two before the sun rose on dark Dutch winter mornings with a cup of coffee, taking ideas from my dissertation and turning them into this article, and reading the developing work of my co-contributors, which also shaped the way my own ideas developed. It was a very peaceful time.

But a slow pace of writing and thinking isn’t really an exceptional aspect of these pandemic years; it’s a fundamental feature of academia. It can be frustrating, especially when there is so much going on the world that feels like it should be addressed with urgency as it happens and evolves. However, there are a lot of kinds of voices in society that already respond to current events with haste: politics, journalism, social media. Academia uniquely fosters slowly thinking through problems together, building on each other’s ideas over generations, and considering contemporary events with deep knowledge of historical and global context. I really value that about academia generally; it’s a different perspective and mode of understanding the present than journalism, for example, provides. (I also think that’s why I can’t really “do” social media: I find myself unable to think and react at the pace that it requires. I’ll still be thinking about how best to respond to someone’s offhand comment a week later, when for all practical purposes it doesn’t even exist anymore!)

You decided to focus on colonialism, extractivism, audibility and the relation-making process that listening entails. Do you believe listening is bound to be unavoidably framed as an extractivist practice?

There are many different ways to frame acts of listening. As you mention, theories of listening from Ana María Ochoa Gautier and Steven Feld inform the whole journal issue and focus on the relations and histories that acts of listening create between sound-producing and listening agents or entities. Is there necessarily something extractivist about listening? I guess there is in the sense that the sound produced by an entity is consumed by a listener; or it could be understood this way. (Sean Colonna’s essay highlights this nicely with a deep investigation of an epistemological lineage that compares musical consumption and the consumption of other stimulating substances, such as drugs and coffee in particular.) But I wouldn’t say that understanding listening as a type of consuming means that it is necessarily negative or exploitative. Rather, this is something to consider or to be aware of about listening: that something that may seem neutral is in fact an act of consuming an aspect of an other and, through that, of constructing one’s idea of that other and its relationship to the listening self—whether that “other,” the sounding entity, is another person, nature, or something else. This is the point: that listening creates relations, that it is a relation. From this starting point, the question is what type of relation does an act of listening constitute, and this depends on many factors—epistemological, historical, contextual—that we try to consider as ethnomusicologists in understanding what an act of listening means.

Let’s turn our ears towards musical or sonic extractions. What are the most salient implications of framing music as a resource susceptible to extraction? Is there any reason to believe music is a somewhat special or a different good for the political and economic framework that has made it resourceful?

Your question makes me think of the 2003 UNESCO Convention, which first included intangible heritage such as music in its definition of heritage, and is often cited in studies of music as heritage. I think the idea of music as heritage and music as an extractable resource are related; we could say heritage is a type of resource. In various studies of music in the framework of heritage from the last decades (some critical of this term, some not), ethnomusicologists have shown that heritage is a useful concept for people and their musical practices, including in concrete material ways: it can bring in government, education, or tourism money to help support a tradition, to restore instruments, train more musicians, or promote circulation among wider audiences. However, there needs to be a critical view of heritage discourses and “heritagization” as well. George Yúdice and others have pointed out that heritage often entails bureaucratic management, drawing boundaries around a tradition which may be quite exclusive or political, and/or reifying or changing living practices to suit the needs of heritage discourses that want to understand and “preserve” tradition in a particular way.

The 2003 UNESCO Convention has been used to argue that music is a special kind of good, sonic intangible knowledge that needs to be considered and treated in particular ways. We can see that thinking of music as heritage—transforming it into this particular type of resource—can be useful, and it can also be problematic. It’s not an inherent problem to extract and to use musical heritage for different ends—but it can be, and it certainly shapes our way of thinking about musical traditions, the people who practice them, and the consumption of them by others.

A point we try to make in the journal issue is that thinking of music as heritage, or as any kind of resource, is just one way to think about music. It’s not a truth that was discovered in 2003, nor is it an inevitable way to think about sound, listening, and sonic practice. And it does shape global relations and economies, in both concrete and subtle ways. So while it can be useful to think of music as heritage, we also have to understand that this is a particular epistemology or ontology of music that is contextual, tied to other epistemologies and structures (including capitalist consumerism), and may exclude or replace other ways of thinking about sonic practice.

You ask if music is a special kind of good. I’m not sure—maybe one way to put it is that rather than understanding music and sound as special, we could say that music and sound are mundane, and that thinking of them as goods or resources is what is “special,” in that it is an ontology specific to a particular time, place, and way of thinking about the world.

Under these commodifying dynamics, is music also seen as incommensurate, just like nature has constantly been portrayed? Would you characterize the current abundance of sound practices as a renewed El Dorado for omnivorous listeners?

Juan, I think that’s an excellent way to put it. Your metaphor highlights a particular critique that I aim to make in the introductory essay to the journal issue, which is of “diversity” discourses that are sometimes used to explain why we should save or preserve the sounds of both culture and nature. In these discourses, we are encouraged to act sustainably in order to keep having access to the array of diverse delights—foods, sights, places, climates, sounds—that we are accustomed to. Climate change will extinguish species, places, and traditions, and this will affect the bio- and cultural diversity that we are able to enjoy, from bird calls to musical practices.

The critical question is: who comprises the “we” perspective in the last sentences? If “diversity” means consumable difference, then some people are the consumers and some are the providers of difference. We may think these are general desires and motivations, but they are actually anchored to a particular perspective, that of the cosmopolitan consumer, likely situated in the Global North, who can travel and access imported goods to satisfy their omnivorous taste. This consumer currently presumes an inexhaustible “El Dorado” of sensory experiences available for consumption, as you put it. A message of sustainability discourses is that this El Dorado may be threatened by climate change—maybe it is not as infinite as presumed. This threat shapes the “responsible” consumer, who thinks it would be a shame for this world of delights to be lost or diminished. However, will the choices of the responsible consumer in the Global North, motivated by the desire for an El Dorado of sensory experiences, ever lead to the fundamental changes that are needed to address climate change? Further, will this model ever lead to a questioning of global power relations between those who consume and those who produce difference? This relation also maps roughly onto the imbalance between those who cause and those who are most deeply and immediately affected by climate change. (And this also maps onto histories of colonial relations of providing and consuming different types of resources.)

A goal of the journal issue is to show that this consumerist perspective is just one way of thinking about and experiencing musical traditions and the sounds of nature. There are other reasons to be concerned about how climate change and extractivist projects are changing the world, from other perspectives. Maria Fantinato’s essay, for example, deeply explores a perspective that has nothing to do with omnivorous listeners hoping to preserve an El Dorado of sonic experiences. Instead, she writes about dwelling in a place where the sounds and silences of the surrounding world have other meanings.

I found particularly worrisome the escalation that extractivism brings about; as you put it, “how extractivism begets further extractivism.” How are we to resist this accumulating dynamic? Actually, is it feasible?

That idea comes from scholars such as Alberto Acosta, Maristella Svampa, and Eduardo Gudynas, in the context of understanding Latin American “neo-extractivist” economic models that rely on the extraction and exporting of natural resources as a primary source of income for a country’s economy. The “sustainability” of this model is based on the colonial idea that countries in the Global South have infinite natural resources that will never be exhausted. However, once these resources turn out to be finite—are, in fact, exhausted—what’s left for these countries and their inhabitants in terms of both economic assets and the environment in which people dwell? When this starts to happen, the only option left seems to be to double down on extraction, looking for new oil reserves or new resources—or even to investigate new forms of extractivist economics, such as selling the protection and continued existence of nature through carbon offset programs like REDD+.

But we could also understand this to be happening on a smaller scale: individuals in consumerist societies try to confront their unsustainable practices through consumerist solutions, such as buying carbon offsets for flights, signing up for “green” energy, buying organic bananas or fair trade coffee. What would it mean to actually question consumerist models in the first place, rather than look to them for solutions, which never seem to make much difference in the long run? I don’t really have a good answer for this, except that it would require fundamental changes on the scale of both politics and economic systems, on the one hand, and consumerist practices and individual behaviors on the other. (Of course, I speak from within a consumerist society; while reading and writing scholarship about extractivism, I use absurd amounts of disposable plastic, buy imported produce, and take international flights.) I agree with you that the tendency to solve extractivism’s problems with further extractivism, on both structural and individual levels, is worrisome. Perhaps I can venture to say that I think change will come from people whose lives and livelihoods are actually affected in concrete ways, whether this is affording some form of power or “voice” to the majority of people in the world who already experience this, or as more and more people who already have forms of power—like a majority of voters in powerful nations—come to fall into this category.

In the texts, the reader is warned about the artificiality of what has been shaped as ‘the given.’ Why such apprehension? Without giving us many spoilers, why is it so important to be aware of the constructedness of ‘the given’?

I think this relates to your previous question about an “El Dorado” of sounds and sensory experiences. A fundamental assumption of such colonial imagery and imaginaries is the idea that the world can give infinitely. But even natural resources come into existence through slow geological processes, and are finite, as we are coming to realize. In her essay, Barbara Titus connects the logics of capitalist economies, environmental exploitation, and sensory perception, which still rely on presumed distinctions between “the given” (nature) and “the made” (culture). The danger is that even as we humanities scholars deconstruct what has been naturalized as cultural, we still are not able to challenge a fundamental distinction between the given and the made that underlies thinking in many realms in the modern west and precludes other ways of understanding and relating to the world. Barbara’s essay lays out the importance of doing so—of recognizing this dichotomy as constructed and contingent as well—and the other essays provide some examples as well.

It feels as if a lot of self-reflectivity was needed in composing this beautiful issue. How are we, as academics, to confront the extractivist dynamics of our own practice? It seems as if we could not prevent from falling into the same dynamics we try to critique…

Indeed, in addition to the fact that many or most academics are individuals positioned within consumerist societies and systems themselves, academic work specifically relies on forms of extraction. Dylan Robinson brings this critique very convincingly to the history of our field in his recent monograph Hungry Listening. Academic production, especially following the standard ethnographic fieldwork model, requires extracting the knowledge of others and using it as a resource to produce scholarship, publish, and (hopefully) achieve job security in what is itself an exploitative, unequal system with a colonial history. My own dissertation fieldwork followed a quite traditional model, going to a place and learning a language for a period of time and relying on people’s help in the field; now I try to translate that into an academic career where I reap the benefits of that process of knowledge extraction.

What can we do about this? I don’t have the answer, although recently this is at least more acknowledged and discussed within our academic communities and societies. Reflexivity is a first step. But anthropologists have been self-reflective since the 1980s. There is a part in Rolando Vázquez’s most recent book Vistas of Modernity (p. 125ff) where he says: not every critique is a decolonial critique. Self-reflectiveness also functions as a kind of enclosure: one thinks critically about oneself within one’s own frameworks of understanding. Self-reflective thinking doesn’t necessarily dismantle colonial difference. In short, self-reflectivity is certainly necessary, but it’s not enough, and (like in the 1980s) we certainly don’t want ethnography to become solely inward-facing.

There are some ethnomusicologists now who are striving to establish a decolonial paradigm for the field, or to explore what that might mean. One example that comes to mind is the work of Juan Castrillón, such as his 2019 film Kiraiñia (Long Flutes) (click here). It is a film about a sonic practice in Southern Colombia, which plays with questions of perspective, agency, listening, memory, and ethnographic truth. Another example is projects where western institutional archives of recordings and knowledge are actually dismantled and returned to indigenous control without stipulations. So going beyond self-reflectivity, I think confronting our own extractivist dynamics as academics involves big questions about agency and control and who actually gains concretely and materially from the work we do. And these are questions to think together and structurally, not just within ourselves as individuals.

This issue certainly expands on conventional notions of extractivism. Yet I wonder how are we, in the academic conversation, to highlight that particular and naturalized extractivist dynamics still amount to the dispossession of subaltern populations. This is clearly seen –for instance– in your own work in regards to Surinamese indigenous and Afrodescendant populations.

This is what I aimed to show in my essay in the issue: that listening practices from the late nineteenth century are directly connected to dispossessing extractivist projects today. The essay ends up being a sweeping history that necessarily leaves out a lot, and is anchored by my own fieldwork with people descended from colonial indentured laborers from Indonesia in Suriname. But, even for some of the essay’s leaps, I hope that the connection is clear and convincing. The very epistemologies that shaped how different groups of people in the colonies were heard by Europeans (epistemologies related to the social Darwinist paradigms and racist science of the time) are still alive in the patterns of control and dispossession that we see in the management of nature and extractivist projects in the present. This happens on international levels (e.g. European/North American-based NGOs in many fields that manage affairs in the Global South) and within nations, between different groups of people who have historically gained or lost power. In Suriname, this is tied to a history of understanding race, ethnicity, and culture, including through musical performance. This is not unique to Suriname, I’m sure that many ethnomusicologists see these connections in their fieldwork and in their lives. I think one key to making these dynamics perceptible for scrutiny is to place them in historical context, to show that ethnographic work doesn’t just capture a present moment, but rather the ongoing (and non-inevitable) outcomes of long histories.

I feel as if ­–mainly outside of academic contexts– extractivist dynamics are acknowledged, and furthermore seen as pernicious and detrimental to the environment. On the contrary, colonialism is often framed as surpassed, belonging to the past.  Do you feel there is a need of depicting colonialism as something of the present, not confined to the past? Can we say colonialism and extractivism are still two sides of the same coin?

Indeed! As Walter Mignolo, Rolando Vázquez, and other “decolonial” thinkers have shown, coloniality did not end along with the formal end of European colonialism in different places. Rather, it has shaped and defined the modern societies and world we live in. (Vázquez’s Vistas of Modernity and Mignolo’s work, such as On Decoloniality by Mignolo and Catherine Walsh, should be required reading, by the way!)

You and I both live in the Netherlands. Here we can see a variety of societal debates, arising mainly in the last five to seven years (taking up points raised decades earlier by academics such as Philomena Essed), that end up pitting two sides against each other: the side that sees colonial history and its attendant white supremacist ideologies as a thing of the distant past, and the side that points out how such ideologies are still extremely present in the aesthetics, structures, and attitudes of contemporary Dutch society. For example, when Sinterklaas arrives with presents for Dutch children on December 5th, he is usually accompanied by several helpers in blackface, with curly wigs, hoop earrings, and painted-on thick red lips (for more on “Zwarte Piet” tradition, read Gloria Wekker’s White Innocence). In another example, until very recently, every year the king would arrive to deliver the annual budget to parliament in a golden carriage with paintings on the sides depicting and celebrating supposedly benevolent Dutch colonialism in Indonesia and the Caribbean. (This carriage was just recently taken out of use for restoration and put in a museum, and its future is currently up for debate.) Many Dutch people argue that these are just harmless vestiges of a distant past, and that examining them critically is an attempt to change or “erase” history. Further, unlike in the U.S. where I’m from, in the Netherlands the multi-party political system allows a delinking of certain sets of beliefs on different topics; so, for example, conceivably a person could be concerned with environmental issues but also argue that there is nothing wrong with Zwarte Piet or the golden carriage.

Certainly colonialism and extractivism are two sides of the same coin, as you put it! Without the unequal relations and structures of coloniality, we wouldn’t have forms of contemporary extractivism that understand people and planet as resources, that dispossess people of their homes and livelihoods and all of us of our planet and future. Instead, we would consider other forms of knowledge that value the earth in different ways, that would make a global economy based on endless extraction and consumption impossible. The fact that we accept extractivist science and projects as legitimate forms of knowledge and relations to the earth, while rejecting other forms of knowledge and dwelling, such as the indigenous perspectives that Maria writes about—that is deeply colonial, and is entangled with the same colonial ideologies that still manifest as celebrations of white supremacy and the colonial past, written off by some as European culture or tradition. (Of course, I do not mean to frame this as a solely European problem. Like the Netherlands, the U.S. still has colonies, and structures and relations within the U.S. are also shaped by colonial ideologies such as white supremacy. It is a global problem.)

There is much to be said about the connection between the senses and the construction of personhood.  Can we strategically translate this disciplinary awareness into ethical and political action? Where to begin?

That’s a big question! Perhaps we can begin by questioning current paradigms in our field that are failing to do this work, such as the particular notion of “diversity” as consumable cultural difference that I mention above, or the idea of “having a voice” as a sort of performative politics of recognition that does not actually give people agency. But maybe I can leave this as an open—and I think excellent and important—question for the readers. My hope is that this journal issue sparks ideas and conversations and leads to further collaborations (or productive critiques!). This question, about translating our critiques into actual action and outcomes, seems like a good place to start. Thank you, Juan!