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Sound's Colonialities: Formatting, Recording and Saving on Indigenous Lands

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Geographers have done much to explore sound’s role in spatial production (Gallagher 2015); social difference (Kanngieser et al. 2016) and formulations of value (McFarlane 2018); and have noted sound’s ability to foment violent multispecies relations (Ritts 2017) and hierarchies (Pavan et al. 2020). But the question of sound’s colonialities – e.g., its relation to constitutive, onto-epistemic practices of colonialism – remains undertheorized (but see: Kanngieser 2021). Recent trends in environmental conservation cast this absence into sharp relief. Worldwide, various governments and NGOs are now celebrating the use of fixed, distributed, and multi-purpose acoustic sensing systems as critical eco-governance infrastructure, set to resolve key issues of species monitoring, defamation, and even community engagement (Gibb et al 2019; Odom et al. 2020). Yet these terrestrial acoustic observatories are non-innocent projections of other social logics too. Within them, one finds an emergent “calculative reason… [that] promises to collect a heterogenous, changing group of elements ‘beneath’ some higher-order goal” (Carse 2016, 35-36). What does this “calculative reason” do to conservation politics? And how might situated digital captures on sound relate to the broader environmental and social concerns of Indigenous communities?

This talk shares some initial reflections on the play of sound within the critical ambit of “coloniality” (Mignolo 2011), a matrix of power which extends unevenly across time and space. Hypothesizing sound’s digitisation and appeal to contemporary eco-governance as one possible expression of coloniality, we ask: What impacts do emergent sonic governance programmes pose to Indigenous communities, now routinely asked to collaborate in their implementation and use in the context of global conservation projects? What epistemological horizons, deskillings/reskillings, and kin relations are being valued and delimited in these observatories? And if the digitalisation of sound can be mobilised in ways that benefit Indigenous communities, how can researchers verify this is indeed what is transpiring on the ground?

This talk is part of the Decolonial Research Lab series.

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