Hearing the Planetary

Lukáš Likavčan
09/25/2023 | Reflections

Once you hear, you cannot unhear: 
How sonic landscapes transform planetary thinking?


Still from Ivo Bystřičan (dir). Invisible Landscapes. 2022. [Image credit: Lukáš Likavčan]
I. Blockbuster
As I stand on the shore of the Fjallsárlón glacial lagoon in southern Iceland, I am confronted with a series of contradicting sensory inputs. First, there is the slowness and majesty of the sheer mass of the glacier itself; a frozen behemoth disastrously crawling towards the sea. Second, a saturating silence occasionally interrupted by animal voices. But then there is something else, disrupting the sonic and visual profile of the area. The still lake is cut by a procession of motorboats with dozens of tourists approaching the glacier’s front cliff, the so-called ablation zone where the thawing ice concentrates. Their ambition is to get as close to the glacier as possible, and ideally to touch it – if not physically then at least telescopically through the lenses of cameras and smartphones. A perfect symptom of the aesthetics of disaster – the tendency to turn the real-world climate catastrophe into a cinematic experience that extinguishes the mobilization potential of the disaster. Yet, there is still something to cling on.

I put on my headphones that lead to a recorder in the bag of my fellow traveler, sound artist Magnús Bergsson. He just threw two hydrophones into the lagoon, hoping to record below the lake’s surface. I am struck with a high-pitch noise that resembles a song of hundreds of birds chirping – the sound of the ice melting in water. Thousands of years ago, when the glacier’s now disappearing crust was formed, molecules of ice were trapped inside the ice. These samples of the ancient atmosphere are now escaping from the melting ice. As they burst towards the lake’s surface, they sound the death knell to one major chapter in planetary history – the stable oscillation between glacial and interglacial periods during the last ~3 millions years of Earth, now coming to an abrupt end with the ongoing climate collapse. As our colleagues from the music band fyield (who composed an album based on the sound recordings) say in their song Blockbuster: “Planetary library, preserved for centuries, melting into oblivion, layer after layer…”
II. The act of listening
This is but one of the many stories I had the privilege to live through during my time with a group of field recordists, filmmakers, and musicians in the summer of 2021. The project we collaborated on is prosaically called Future Landscapes – a transdisciplinary endeavor that invites the audience to immerse themselves in the sonic profiles of infrastructures and ecologies endemic to the Czech Republic and Iceland. Put in simple terms, the project asks: What can sound tell us about the future? What can be learned in the act of listening? 
The project is built on a foundation of multimodal data from quasi-ethnographic fieldwork, comprising sound recordings, videos, observations, and written notes. These data have been processed into multiple media formats to broadcast the project’s message to a broader audience: a comprehensive web archive, podcast series, the music album Future Landscapes by fyield, and the documentary film Invisible Landscapes directed by Ivo Bystřičan, which recently won the competition for the best Czech and Slovak science documentary film at AFO: The 58th International Festival of Science Documentary Films. The project is going to be on tour in the US during October and November, including venues such as KEXP in Seattle and Stanford University.
Looking at my time spent on the fieldwork for the project, the act of listening turns out to be a central methodological takeaway that is widely transferable across disciplines. There is something transformative in the act of listening – you don’t talk over what you are confronted with, but you quietly accept to be carried away by the sonic waves. It’s an experience of the metabolic nature of one’s selfhood1, something that Stacy Alaimo encapsulates in her term transcorporeality: “Transcorporeality does the opposite of distancing or dividing the human from external nature. It implies that we’re literally enmeshed in the physical material world, so environmentalism cannot be an externalized and optional kind of pursuit, but is always present, always at hand.” In other words, in the act of listening, you melt right into the environmental circumstances of the planetary. While doing so, you also realize that there is no real contradiction between the planetary and the intimate – hearing the planetary is always already situated.

III. Situated philosophy
In Eating in Theory, Annemarie Mol reorients philosophical reflection toward everyday metabolic engagements that constitute human corporeal existence. By means of an analogy, she uses two figures to contrast the philosophical business-as-usual with her own approach: a walker, one who moves in the environment, and an eater, one who moves “their surroundings through their bodies.” It is the second figure that Mol’s project of empirical philosophy advocates for. By drawing heavily from methodological resources of STS and ethnography, her project focuses on how philosophy can be reimagined as a reflexive endeavor that emerges from the ensembles of bodies, environments and metabolic mediations. 
Just as with the figure of the eater, while listening, your surroundings move through your body, they literally move you. So, I would love to add another figure to this emergent genre of philosophical practice: a listener. Just as an eater, a listener is a figure born out of transcorporeal situatedness in the surrounding metabolic flows, a trainee in Donna Haraway’s situated epistemology. My hope is that by adopting such a figure, another philosophy is possible: a philosophy that interweaves personal and communal histories, one that does not shy away from its necessarily autobiographical dimension. In other words, situated philosophy. Such philosophy can flourish only if it integrates the takeaways of history, ethnography, STS, feminist and decolonial studies into its very methodological core. The project Future Landscapes meets the challenge of situated philosophy halfway, in its own limited way: there are more – and far better equipped – listeners to come, and to carry this challenge to its fruition.

The links below introduce the project’s outputs through different media, prominently featuring the auditory dimension – podcasts, field recordings, music album and a documentary film that emphasizes its soundtrack. While listening, I invite the readers to think how they would carry the methodology of the project further, what the project’s critical limitations are, or how the project could land in geographical contexts the readers are familiar with.
Project website
Documentary film trailer
Documentary film teaser
Blockbuster by fyield on Spotify
Full album by fyield on Spotify

1 In my contribution to the forthcoming special issue of Visual Resources: An International Journal on Images and Their Uses – “The Emotions of Late Anthropocene in Visual Arts” by Ondřej Beran and Antony Fredriksson – I elaborate on the idea of metabolic self in more detail, working with further theoretical insights by Annemarie Mol or Rossi Braidotti.

Lukáš Likavčan is Global Perspectives on Society Postdoctoral Fellow at NYU Shanghai and guest researcher at Leiden Observatory. His areas of expertise span philosophy of science & technology and environmental philosophy. He is the author of Introduction to Comparative Planetology (Strelka Press, 2019).

Published: 09/25/2023