Essay: Why listen to animals?

Rachel Mundy

Note: This essay appears simultaneously in the blog of the American Musicological SocietyMusicology Now

Brown ThrasherSome readers may recognize my question “Why Listen to Animals?” as a play on the title of John Berger’s essay “Why Look at Animals?,” which was printed in 1980 as the first chapter of his book, About Looking. Berger argued that the animals who once looked at us have been replaced in the past two centuries by animals at whom we look: in the zoo, the circus, and the toy store. Just as Berger’s About Looking is not about looking, but about seeing our own glances, I want to advocate in this essay not just that we listen to animals, but that we hear the way we listen. Listening is a practice that has been built with, against, and through cultural beliefs about interiority and human identity that rely on animals—not any animal, but “the” animal, the category of the animal—to persist. In hearing ourselves listen to animals, we can begin to notice foundational notions of difference that inform both how we hear, and how we see, animals and other Others.

I’m addressing this thought to two sets of readers, scholars of music and scholars of animal studies. While music scholars are unlikely to talk about animals, the historians and literary critics who populate animal studies are unlikely to talk about sound. My own disciplinary home base, the American Musicological Society, is made up of highly skilled listeners, but we tend to share a background in classical music that leaves animals far outside our purview. At last year’s conference, only one of the over 300 paper presentations explicitly referenced animality in its title (Michael Puri’s “The Rise of the Humanimal: From Schumann to Ravel, via Barthes”). Members of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts are far more likely to talk about animals than musicologists are. Here it is listening and the other senses that are outliers: with only eight papers devoted to sound in 2017, the majority were about words and images, reflecting members’ grounding in textual and visual analysis. I want to show in this essay why it is so important to take critical approaches like Berger’s into the realm of sound—and to take sound into the study of animals and their representation.

Foucault introduced the notion of the gaze in 1960s France as a power relationship in which looking and being looked at established both dominance and subjection. The concept has been borrowed by scholars in gender studies, critical race studies, postcolonial studies, and elsewhere, and it has also been adapted by scholars of animal studies. But representations of animals, visual and otherwise, are not quite one among many such adaptations. The category of the animal is easier to compare to “the Other” than to gender, race, class, sexuality, or nationality.

Studies of sound, especially of music and song, bring traditions of interiority and sentience to bear on these questions of representation. Voice, speech, testimony, and music-making have been used as vehicles for beliefs about the rights, worth, and dignity of those who are different. Like Berger, many scholars in animal studies have framed our glances at animals as exertions of power and ownership. Listening reveals the spectacle of the nonhuman as a ground for comparison, an evaluation of ability, and an assessment of rights that extends from the animal to those deemed less than fully human. At stake are issues of power and representation that extend from animals to all the other Others.

We can’t think about animals without contending with the practice of listening; we also, I believe, can’t think about the practice of listening without contending with animals. This seems particularly important to do at a moment when it is becoming increasingly clear that humanism’s categories of nature and culture are tied to the disposability of those who are considered less than fully human. Roy Scranton, Alexander Weheliye, Sylvia Wynter, and Jane Bennet are a few among the many who have mapped the limits of the humanistic tradition around its ethics of human life, often while still praising its strengths. Drawing on their precedents, I recently argued that modern ethics are grounded in notions of life that come from a postindustrial rupture between the animal and a white and Western notion of the human, using the invented phrase “the animanities” to describe the work of historicizing and re-imagining connections between modern ethics and notions of life. In asking my readers to bring together sound and representations of animals, I am inviting new ways to hear past the boundaries that limit both humanism and modern ethics.


In her chapter “Seeing Animals” in Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now?, Kari Weil writes about looking at animals as a problem of visual representation. But despite the chapter’s title, her language slips between the voice and the realm of the visual. She begins her thoughts on representation by turning her readers back to the 1970s, when women’s studies scholars began to consciously incorporate the writings of women and minorities into their work. Although her subject is ostensibly visual, Weil begins with an auditory metaphor, describing the “voices” of those women and minorities who had been “silenced” but were nevertheless “authors of their own representations; their voices were speaking loudly and demanded to be heard.” (Weil 2012, 25) Weil then shifts back to both animals and vision to explain that the self-representation of nonhuman species brings a different but related set of challenges. “Even though artwork by chimps or elephants has produced much cash for some dealers lately, we cannot expect to find a chimp authoring his or her own self-representation—at least not in the languages we recognize.” (26) Here, voices are about inclusion, images are about representation, and both together are about authorship. Weil uses these metaphors to outline profound questions about the transference of authorship, authority, representation, and power across species boundaries. And although she identifies her chapter with seeing, Weil’s point is actually much broader, stretching across text, voice, and image. It is a reminder that in Weil’s work—indeed in most reflections on human ways of seeing animals— the question of how we see isn’t just about seeing, but gets at much broader questions about power, inclusion, authority, and representation. If elephants and chimps can’t paint their own portraits, who has the authority to do so? And how can one assess a human’s authority to speak for other species, if we so often use the power of speech to marginalize and disenfranchise “Other” human beings?

Here is a Janus-faced problem of power and alterity. Seen through the visual lens that has been favored within animal studies, looking at animals tells us that we use images of other species to explore the Western “Other” at its most radical. But looking at animals also shows us the limits of our own subjectivity. Both of these notions have been explored at length by Haraway, Derrida, Berger, Weil, and many others. From the first perspective, images of animals don’t just symbolize one kind of difference among many, but represent a radical way of being Other that serves to define and justify what all the other Others are. The corollary to this way of seeing, however, is that in addition to serving as a visual symbol of radical Otherness used for human ends, nonhuman species possess a real alterity that exists outside of the limits of human subjectivity. Other species, with their multiple stomachs and jagged foliage and perpetually growing teeth, have ways of experiencing life that human beings don’t have. And both of these kinds of alterity—the symbolic Western Otherness, and the material difference that emerges in cultural and biological contexts—have been seen, but not often heard, in the lives and bodies of animals.


I first encountered animal studies through its critique of vision. In the early 2000s, I confessed to one of my graduate professors, Jason Stanyek, that instead of listening to Debussy I wanted to record birdsong in my urban Manhattan neighborhood. Rather than chiding me for spending my time unwisely, he handed me an Edirol recorder, sent me down the street to meet the founder of New York University’s animal studies program, Una Chaudhuri, and loaned me Donna Haraway’s Primate Visions. Although critical listening still formed the basis of what I was doing, I began discovering a host of remarkable ideas that came from a literature about looking and seeing. For me, the critique of vision in animal studies literature was unexpectedly a one-way street, a point of no return. Once I saw Tom Palmore’s gorilla odalisque Reclining Nude reproduced on page 11 of Haraway’s Primate Visions, once I read Haraway’s and Mieke Bal’s histories of gazing at dioramas and visited the American Museum of Natural History myself, all of the texts about sound and sight which I had so painstakingly read as a graduate student seemed to shift. The male gaze, the white gaze, and the imperial ear felt as if they were permanently realigned by the act of looking at animals. I couldn’t articulate why or how, but I had been convinced by pictures that representations of animals informed not just some of my visual aesthetics, but all of them.

This sense that looking at animals shapes the taxonomy of our world is shared by many scholars in animal studies. Almost thirty years ago, Donna Haraway traced the creation of biological, taxonomic Orders to modern political and social orders. More recently Una Chaudhuri wrote that animal studies scholars still want to “intervene radically in established discourses and their terms of art” (Chaudhuri 2007, 8). Haraway, Chadhuri, Jacques Derrida, Peter Singer, Cary Wolfe and Kari Weil are just a few who have questioned the ways that looking at animals restructures human power, hierarchy, and knowledge. Once we see the way we see animals, we can never see ourselves the same way again.

Perhaps this tendency to radical re-thinking is one reason why animal studies is not always cool. Posthumanism, with its nanotechnology and history of science and critical theory, is definitely cool. But writing about animals suggests that the scholar in question has taken an emotional turn that leaves her mistaking “the animal” as a legitimate category, ignorant of continental philosophy and susceptible to PETA radicalization and the Puppy Channel. Or, worse, to veganism. Science, technology, and philosophy endow their followers with masculine reason; an interest in animals is more often associated with emotion, femininity, and childhood. And while it bothers me when I’m reconfigured from a complex thinker into a “lady who does birdsong,” the uncool is a garden of illicit pleasures. Listening can and should be radical, rational, and emotional all at the same time. Radical re-thinking is a place of both emotional engagement and reason, where sophisticated and erudite music scholars set aside their serious interests in bebop and Beethoven to send me videos of dogs barking, birds singing, and concert performances with animals. Proud and fierce musicologists, I could surprise you with the things your colleagues watch on YouTube.

Take, for example, Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s sound art installation from here to ear, in which a flock of zebra finches interact with electric guitars in a bounded enclosure ( ). Visitors walk through this enclosed space and observe the birds as they interact with live guitar strings whose parameters were predetermined by the composer. I’ve been forwarded numerous links to videos of this work posted on YouTube (please keep sending them). The piece was originally premiered in 1999 and has had a number of subsequent performances, the latter being the source of the videos I get sent. From a musician’s perspective, the work raises a number of questions about musicality, authorship, natural-cultural boundaries, intention, and public performance. How, for example, does Boursier-Mougenot’s willingness to share control with birds compare to a traditional composer’s relationship with human performers? Do we think of the birds as “choosing” the sounds they create? How could we decide? What is special about the role of the audience in this piece, as they create their own narrative about what is occurring as they walk through the enclosure?

Eventually such questions about musicality and intention give way to questions about inclusion, sentience, mediation, and control: if the birds have a choice in the sounds they create, do they also have rights? Are they in some sense laborers in Boursier-Mougenot’s piece? Who arbitrates such questions about zebra finchs’s rights and needs, and how? And what is at stake when all of these questions are circulated through digital media on YouTube, sent by friends and colleagues to me, the lady who “does” birdsong?

These are questions where both seeing and hearing become negotiations of power. Foucault’s notion of the gaze has been adapted by scholars of animal studies as it has been adapted elsewhere. But the category of the animal isn’t interchangeable with categories such as gender, race, class, sexuality, or nationality. It includes all members of the kingdom Animalia, the non-plants, the multi-celled, and the singled-celled who pass a certain measure of complexity. Human beings are technically included in the category of the animal, but we are excluded by connotation and tradition. In a work like from here to ear, there is a radical split, a rupture, that leaves listeners hearing “animal” first and individual and collective zebra finches, classified Taeniopygia guttata, second if at all.

Although I don’t have space in this essay to explore this idea fully, I would argue that images of “the animal” as a radical Other tell us something important about the way difference itself operates as a category in relation to identity. The animal and the different are twins, for both operate as a broad swathe within which categories of simians, Asians, women, and other Others seem “different” in inexplicably similar ways. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s notion of intersectionality, which was designed to combat the invisibility of black women within antidiscrimination law, doesn’t serve studies of the animal as well as it serves questions of race and gender. For the scope of the animal is so large, and its potential realm of associations so broad, that to tackle the intersectional references to race, gender, Orientalism, sexuality, and so on in an image like Palmore’s Reclining Nude or a zebra finch on a guitar is more like navigating a poorly designed seven-highway exchange with clover leaf on/off ramps than like crossing an “intersection.”

For many of us who work in animal studies, re-thinking the practice of looking at animals has not just added one more way of expressing power through the gaze; discovering the way our eyes are directed at animals has changed the way many of us understand the notion of the gaze itself. The startling breadth of questions and issues that circulate through an image like Palmore’s Reclining Nude, or Boursier-Mougenot’s from here to ear, reflect backwards for me, changing the way I see Manet’s Olympia and hear Varèse’s Poème électronique. Once I’ve seen the animals in one context (and heard them in another), I can’t unknow how pivotal their absence is in all the other places. It is as if representations of animals are not one among many possible intersections, but the place where the intersections come from.


Author Rachel Mundy recording soundsListening to animals is not the cultural equivalent of seeing them. I want to turn from looking to listening for a moment, and think about what each practice brings to the other’s interpretation. This isn’t a turn to the vibrant and creative literature about animal musicality by authors such as Rothenberg, Doolittle, Krause, Taylor, or even Schafer, but a turn in response to our peculiar gazes. The critique of vision provided by animal studies is a kind of magical creation. It makes visible an invisible world, working backwards in time to reconfigure every masterwork and every glance of modern humanism. That invisible world is the unacknowledged space where identities intersect, in which notions of nature and animality have served to ground measures of otherness and personhood. And studies of listening are well versed in this invisible world. Although visual analysis has made us aware of the category of the animal, it is our habits of listening that have the most to tell about traditions of aural identity, interiority, and personhood that circulate through the invisible world of alterity. I want to end my essay by suggesting that our habits of listening tell us something meaningful about the borders and boundaries that have been formed with, against, and through the category of ultimate difference, the animal.

When I first started recording birds in Manhattan, I began to think differently about sound and visibility.

Listening to birds taught me to hear spatially, using my ears to locate birds I couldn’t see through walls or foliage. I learned to recognize the songs and calls of various species, and tried to understand those sounds as symbols of a rich invisible world. Eduardo Kohn, Steven Feld, Walter Ong, and others have described such moments of hearing invisible meaning as transcendent. Kohn describes how learning to listen like a hunter during his fieldwork in Ecuador taught him to hear specific meanings in the barks of dogs and the movement of wild pigs; these auditory signs, in turn, forced Kohn to re-think what it means to have a self, to be a person. Like Kohn, and like many other ethnographers and naturalists, I learned to hear sentience, selfhood, and meaning in sound too. Before seeing them, I could hear a deer stamp his foot in the scrub; I’d hear the local hawk’s chicks begging for food; and I’d hear the alarm calls of thrushes warning me that something they considered dangerous, probably another pedestrian, was on the path ahead.

Just as birders learn to recognize species by ear, I learned in graduate school how to identify invisible differences in music: how to recognize French baroque styles by ear, how to hear sung representations of women’s hysteria in 19th-century opera, and how to tell twentieth-century counterfeits of eighteenth-century music from the original. Listening in this way, whether walking in the woods or watching a YouTube video, raises many of the questions that I already wondered about when hearing from here to ear. What kinds of music, or what species of animal, do I hear? How can I identify them? Should I imagine these sounds as machine-like productions, or as intentional? How should authorship be ascribed? How would I know? As soon as these questions engage with intention or meaning, they enter the sphere of invisible meanings created by persons, selves, who are outside the limits of human subjectivity.

This leads me back to the zebra finches in Boursier-Mougenot’s from here to ear. Scientists have documented these birds’ alternate selves as they sing to their unhatched eggs and dream of singing while they sleep. Originally from Australia, zebra finches were imported to Europe during the 1800s after the British colonization of the continent. They have been kept as pets and used in laboratory research for over two hundred years, and the birds used today in Boursier-Mougenot’s work have distinct genetic profiles, cultural behaviors, and physical traits unique to their histories of forced migration. It’s a multi-species tale of colonial history and global economies that forces the listener to rethink the category of nature that grounds traditional questions about selfhood. One might try to salvage that version of nature by comparing the zebra finch to the deer, hawks, and thrushes I encountered in the woods. But those species––wood thrushes, white-tailed deer, and Cooper’s hawks–– are likewise inadvertent migrants whose bodies and habits have deployed transculturation in the aftermath of colonial economies, industrialization, and urbanization.

This terrain has already been trod in studies of human music. Music scholars such as Roshanak Kheshti, Ana Maria Ochoa, and Bennett Zon have shown how colonial and racist agendas are at play in Western representations of music as filters through which selfhood can be heard. For power is also at play here: who determines what sentience sounds like? Who decides what is a song and what is noise? Whose voice can be heard as human, and therefore as a person? What is at stake in contrasting the human voice with animal nature? It is no coincidence that Weil, Spivak, and so many others have needed metaphors of voice and silence to describe both the marginalization and the agency of women and non-white persons. For it is in voice and sound that we have been trained to hear both selfhood and alterity.

It is here that the study of sound spirals outward from the dual gazes of animal studies—the Westernized glance at the Other, and the inward glance at human subjectivity. Listening to animals allows us to confront notions of the invisible self that are built upon the limited foundations of human identity. “Why Listen to Animals?” is, in the end, a question about the relationship between identity, alterity, and the categories of modern humanism. Alterity, badly created, doesn’t even foster good humanism; it just keeps lagomorphs’, macaques’, nits’, or pelicans’ questioned rationality satisfying to unctuous vanity, wherein xenophobia yields zoo-ontology. Listening has much to tell us about the way categorical notions of alterity have set the terms of selfhood, subjectivity, and human identity.

Berger ended his essay by mourning the isolation of human glances in modern capitalism. I would like to end mine by reiterating how much our listening ears still have to teach us about the promise and perils of humanism. This essay isn’t a study or an analysis; it doesn’t even begin to explain the connections that tie together sonic culture, selfhood, and human identity. But understanding those connections means understanding how nature became a disposable resource; how nonhuman lives became invisible and silent; and how human life came to be circumscribed by notions of subjectivity that privilege only some types of selves. We are only beginning to recognize the ways that we measure subjectivity through sound; and that we measure alterity, in so many ways, by comparing ourselves with other species. Music scholars and scholars of animal studies have much to teach one another, and I very much hope this essay encourages interested readers towards new collaborations and interests.



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I am an Assistant Professor of Music in the Arts, Culture, & Media program at Rutgers University in Newark. I specialize in twentieth and twenty-first century music at the juncture of sound studies, the history of science, and animal studies. My work brings music’s history to bear on broad questions about the arts as a vehicle for modern notions of dignity, rights, and privilege in the West. My book Animal Musicalities traces histories of modern sound through comparisons between animal and human musicality, drawing on the history of biology, anthropology, psychology, and comparative musicology. I am currently working on a comic-book inspired visual biography of music ethnographer Laura Boulton, and a second monograph entitled Hearing Beyond Humanism.