Image courtesy of Alejandro Jaramillo.


“Murmullos I, o la Herida de la Naturaleza” [Murmurs I, or the Wound of Nature], the sound piece on which this text is based, arises from an inevitable reflection in my work as commissioner and editor-in-chief of the testimonial volume Cuando los Pájaros no Cantaban: Historias del Conflicto Armado en Colombia (2022), [1] [When the Birds Didn’t Sing: Stories from Colombia’s Armed Conflict], part of the Final Report of the Truth Commission. It arises out of a question which, although stemming from my previous academic work, is situated in the intermediate terrain between the documentation of human rights violations and breaches of international humanitarian law, which are proper to a commission, and the creation of other languages to speak about violence: that is, it is situated at the inquiry of what I call other epistemologies of harm and, in this sense, in the political space that defines the porous zone between the audible and the inaudible. In other words, I am interested in the conditions of audibility of non-human suffering.

Murmurs I is a sixteen-minute sound piece based on a series of concepts and particular methods developed over the course of the last decade. [2] It is based on an idea that perhaps may be alien to the wsorld of social sciences I come from: in addressing testimony, there is a tendency to emphasize the relevance of the meanings and the relationships between incomprehension and comprehension associated with what is said and what is not said. As scholars, from the interviews we record for our books, we are left with what people say via a transcription, basically a materialization of the narratorial power of the academic. What sonically surrounds these encounters disappears. Transcriptions are abstractions of the spoken word. They lack their sensorial context of enunciation as we perform prophylaxis on them. Murmur I is therefore an exploration of the threshold between senses, as meanings and as sounds and nonsense. Metaphorically speaking, the murmurs are the “voices” (in the biological sense of the word) that are barely perceptible and understandable to us as humans.

It was the product of extensive travels around the country over a period of two years and many conversations with elders and wise men and women throughout Colombia. Composed of eight sound channels, it collects some of the sounds of Amazonian societies living in the Araracuara region regarding their daily lives, and a number of collective conversations about coca and the Law of Origin held during the twilight hours with elders of the Andoque, Muina-Murui (previously called Huitoto), and Nonuya peoples, amongst others. I even explored the topic of “the suffering of Mother Earth” with people whose languages are becoming extinct, such as the Makaguaje in Caquetá, also in the Amazonian region.

This archipelago of layers of sound resembles what Richard Elliot stated about the literature of nonsense: “[T]he nonsense moment is a borderline experience, sited between other realms of sense-making; the very nature of “understanding” or not is part of the nonsense process.” (Elliott 2018)

The stories and sound spaces of the rivers and paleafitic homes of the Pacific Coast and the Afro-descendant worlds, of the mountains and deserts of the Caribbean, among peasant and ethnic organizations in the Cordillera and the Sierra Nevada, were also the setting for a peripatetic methodology I call “itineraries of meaning.” Murmullos is an intimate work that is further developed in other versions insofar as it explores the situated dimensions of devastation as it acquires, as a creative process, the form of a living organism undergoing permanent change.[3] This sound piece, along with the other thirty-two, has also been part of the Ritual Readings, an itinerant methodology that the testimonial volume devised in order to socialize the “stories within stories” that comprise the content of the book. We created sound spaces engulfed by darkness and used full throated recitals/readings as part of the affective fabric that sought to share the testimonies of survivors in places where death still dwelled.[4]

Obliterated spaces. Location of a mass grave in Arauca, Colombia. Photo taken by the author.

The Aporia

I ask this question out of pure and simple ignorance, wondering whether perhaps there is an echo, a reverberation, during days of human induced devastation (Castillejo-Cuéllar 2020c). In the context of public debates, I feel deeply dissatisfied when mentions are made of the “effects” experienced by the “environment” due to “armed conflict and war.” To begin with, sometimes the terms “environment,” “nature,” and even “ecosystem” evoke a particular kind of space, a complex container of the actions of human beings. An ontological reduction of complexity. At best, a container of people's pain. Secondly, by using the term “armed conflict,” we immediately fall into the conventional conceptual cartography that subdivides war based on the “armed actors” in ideological contention. In more “systemic” visions of violence, such as those that understand violence as a multiform set of historical appropriations of “the natural,” “nature” itself may be the very source of conflict. To speak of post-violence in Colombia without thoroughly addressing this issue is almost a sophism. This was one of the several “structural silences,” to use Allen Feldman's term, left by the Commission in Colombia.[5] In any case, “nature” (or the territory as it is often referred to by survivors) is “affected” in the midst of the armed confrontation. It is yet another casualty, so to speak, another victim. The words “environment” or “nature” thus evoke a certain panoramic distance from an observing subject. An externality is presumed, despite constant references to the interconnectivity of the human and non-human lifeworlds.

The Order of Terror. Mapiripán, Department of Meta, Colombia. Photo taken by the author.

Perhaps what is most problematic about these ways of speaking is that these “effects” are often expressed in economic terms, in their intricate tabulations of losses and gains, and in what has not been “produced” in the circuits of capital and “wealth.” Eventually everything is monetized or undergoes a transmutation. “Nature” is made legible through these terms, it is “domesticated.”[6] I would like to make this, the only generalization I am willing to maintain, for the benefit of my question: every society requires secular or religious theodicies, i.e. theories that explain the nature of human suffering. There are social institutions, such as churches, that take care of this. Based on this notion I could state that, in moments of political transitions, the state appropriates social pain with the languages of law and trauma, our secular theodicies and political theologies. This is what a truth commission does: it sets forth ways of enunciating and managing uncertainty (Castillejo-Cuéllar 2021). The terms “damages” or “reparations,” for example, are part of these discursive universes, part of the “global gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation.” In these contexts, “nature” is legible by way of a certain economic language. This reading, while useful in some contexts and for certain purposes, restricts the notion of “violence” to a set of times, spaces, subjects, and actions. When we ask rain forests what violence is, however rhetorical this question may seem, their testimony would be lengthy and not circumscribed to what we call “armed conflict.” In other words, our secular theodicies (and it goes without saying that the Commission is the promise of one that is halfway between the confession box and the psychoanalytic couch) do not account for this non-human painthey do not acknowledge it.[7] The bias is ontological: transitional justice is essentially a set of mechanisms based on an anthropocentric conception of pain that revolves around the human as the locus of suffering. We would need to recalibrate listening and create other conditions of audibility to ask ourselves about the pain of a river, were we to accept such a possibility (Castillejo-Cuéllar 2016): How could we then conduct a deeper inquiry into the relationships between “violence,” “nature” and “pain”? What terms or what languages would we have to use to speak of this relationship? Who can testify to it and how? Wouldn't we be facing another ontology of pain (Holbraad and Pederson 2017)?

I would like to refer to a couple of my own articles to try to reframe the question. The first one is entitled “Mending the Social: Testimonial Spirits, Grieving Trees and Other Epistemologies of Pain in Colombia” (Castillejo-Cuéllar 2020b). The second, “From Graphisms to Phonisms: The Voice, the (in)audible and the Sites of Disappearance” (Castillejo-Cuéllar 2020a). Two very different but intimately interrelated essays. The first recapitulates the experience of a peasant community forcibly displaced by paramilitaries in 2000 “returning,” several years later. Nothing is more complex than “going back” to the places where one experienced violence. Returning, simultaneously an administrative and an existential act, was possible through the incorporation of a ritual dialogue with the “ancestors” that an indigenous elder of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in the Caribbean performed with a tree.[8] The tree, as in the work of the Mozambican writer Mia Cuoto, was scarred with machete “wounds” left from the times of violence: in a certain sense, through the ritual of “pagamento” [9] and by listening to the “the ancestors” facilitated by the tree as a cosmic center, the balance that violence had fractured was somehow restored (or “repaired”, according to institutional language) (Couto 1996).

De las Grafías a las Fonías, on the other hand, is a meditation, even a method, regarding the sonorous dimensions of the ancestors’ act of bearing witness, from the perspective of an area of research I will call “ethnophonic” rather than “ethnographic.” Here is the invitation: what would happen to ethnographic knowledge if we situate it not in the realm of text but in the realm of sound, of aurality? Not in the sense of writing about sound, past and present, or exploring how ethnography sounds, but rather making sound, noise, and silence its building blocks. What would happen to the notion of “knowledge” in that case? What would be its languages, its grammars, its modes of argumentation, its notion of “data,” if such terms still had meaning? Would the word “write” have any meaning? What kind of material drifts would the idea of “book” or “document” take? Wouldn't we be talking about a radical dimension of listening, a bio-eco-social affective fabric, an akróasis, an “integrative” listening with the whole body, with multiple modulations?[10] What about the porous borders between “documenting” violence (serious human rights violations) and the creative act of producing other sonic languages as a form of transmission? What happens to the idea of “dissemination of knowledge, “peer review” and “journal”? I am not talking about an act of “translation:” it is not a matter of translating certain “knowledge,” about human rights for example, but rather how the “experience” of violence can be articulated in other reference systems, such as sound.

Between the ignominious Pozolería in Tijuana, La Maison des Esclaves in Dakar, the Prestwich Cemetery of slaves brought from Ceylon to South Africa and the stories of mass graves in the Colombian Caribbean, the text collects several snapchats of almost two decades of fieldwork, listening to those who spoke, through “incarnations” of the dead or ghosts: in essence, the historically disappeared.[11] An experimental document that weaves a braid with its own images, sound archives recorded over the years and narrative texts. In this context, pixelated irregular images, sound interference and the electronic hiss are part of the story of what is perhaps an impossible testimony (McBride 2001).

What is important is what connects both documents: the intention of thinking about the epistemologies of pain as they intertwine with longer temporalities of silence and terror. Also, the possibility of understanding what it means to dwell in the world in the abyss and what the pendulations between the realms of the sensible (what we feel with our senses) and the intelligible (what we signify) are. In both texts, the restitution of equilibrium (between the world of the living and the world of the “dead”) imply the restitution of a voice and the reinstatement of a dialogue with ancestors that are active subjects within the survivor’s immediate world. Examining testimony and its historical underpinnings became an exploration of the sonic reverberations of violence and memory, abandonment, and vulnerability. At the time of writing, I was also exploring the sonic biographies of rivers, the Atrato in the Colombian Pacific in particular (or should I rather call them “biophonies,” from biography). Like the tree, I wondered how I could make its scars audible, rather than “visible” (Merleau-Ponty 1968; Wurzer 2002).

During my own sonic expeditions, I sometimes wondered how the world had changed sonically during the afterlife of violence, and in fact how “nature” had changed, with its microscopic as well as macroscopic devastations? What does it mean to inhabit that wound, an instance of deep silence that questions the basic assumption that considers the concept of “reparation” as a “return” to the moment before the violence? When we ask ourselves about the existential landscapes of human beings, these questions acquire methodological-political complexity, to say the least. To reiterate: can trees be subjects of pain? Testimony, in this text, refers to “an articulation of experience” although this “articulation” (a word that evokes a gesture of “understanding” as well as towards “connection”) may be rendered sonorously, corporeally, textually, orally, visually or through performance (Castillejo-Cuéllar 2009). This leads us to the possibility of an akróatic listening, or inter-listening as Liseth Lipari would say: polyphonic, polychronic, polymodal (Lipari 2014). These concerns lead to creative practices, to creative embryos and collaboration, and even to the so-called world of the “arts.” This is how Murmurs I, or The Wound of Nature, was born. More than a piece of sonic art it is an inquiry into the testimonial subject we call the forest.

I then thought of a methodological gesture, coming back to the “effects” of armed conflict and war on the “environment,” a kind of concurrence that structured the Dialogues with Nature, the section of the testimonial volume dedicated to this question: investigating about the violent death of a taita, a curaca or a mamo, one of those central male figures who intermediate with the sacred. In Amazonian societies, for example, some of them are the link with parallel entities that inhabit the forest, consisting of a “magical” zoning whose fluxes, relations and movements are interwoven (as in a fabric) with these presences. Morality, prejudices, destiny, the future, disease, and health are read from these interconnections. How we walk, where we walk and when we walk in the forest are related to these presences. The murder of a curaca, a taita or a mamo (among many others) means the fracture of this link to the world that lies beyond the territory (in the generic-geographical sense), that dialogue between the world of the living and the “dead.” In fact, as already stated, the words “ecology” or “ecosystem,” “environment” or “nature” are a technical simplification of this complexity, where the rustle of the wind as it blows through some trees, the sounds of the birds, and the ancestors, are living entities that interact and possess agency in the immediate more-than-human-world. They are also subjects who endure pain, more than subjects who possess rights. In this world, trees also hurt, also bleed, and also testify.

Here I’d like to take an explanatory short cut: I understand violence as a stratigraphic succession of historically situated layers of devastation, where armed conflict is part of a spatial-temporal continuum, if told by the river or by the tree. For example, there is an intimate relationship between the Arana family rubber plantations, the Belgian Congo at the end of the nineteenth century and the extensive contemporary African and Latin American agribusiness plantations. Ultimately there is no document about civilization that is not a document about barbarity, as Walter Benjamin wrote in his Thesis for a Philosophy of History (1968). As with all devastations of life forms, human and non-human, they leave marks, traces, debris, tracks and ruins comprising long knots of temporalities. From the devastation of war (which occurs on various scales) there remain ruins of the social, lives and ties ruined as a “process of systemic loss” of relationships (Rose, van Dooren, and Chrulew 2017). Devastation refers not only to an image of an inhospitable land, but also implies, as I have just suggested, paying attention to the forms it takes, to the metamorphoses that arise from the fragmentations, the silencing and naturalized absences that are presented as part of the religion of progress. Here I approach critiques of modernity, where technical reason is not an antidote to “violence,” but constitutes it. Auschwitz is the most obvious illustration. Looking at the connections between more-than-human-worlds and placing mamos and other elders at the center of this interconnectedness allows me to problematize the divide between “nature” and “culture.”


But the trees that testify also foster the possibility of new life-worlds and new questions: not about how to reconstruct previous lives (before trauma or the erasure of rights), but rather building them from the wound, with no “intention” or possibility of “returning” to that original moment, when violence bifurcated people’s lives. In demonstrating that the “effects of the war on the environment” go beyond a language that quantifies nature, or absorbs it as raw material and as part of the production of commodities, the section Dialogues with Nature explores several, apparently disconnected topics, in order to arrive at the notion that embraces the forest as a “subject of pain,” e.g. exploring the rupture of those systemic human-nonhuman ties by inquiring into what happens when the life of a healer, entrusted with managing the integrality of the sacred and the dialogue with other beings (ancestors, the invisible, the forebears, spirits, entities, etc.), is killed. More than the statistics of the assassination of “protected individuals,” this raises several questions for us: What universes are unfailingly lost or exterminated when elders are killed? What cosmic ties are fissured? What surreptitious “conversations” are left in the void? These questions are what Murmurs I and its research process explore in the form of layers of sonic experience.[12] Faced with obvious epistemological and ontological limitations, we decided to take the metaphor and the practice of akroatic listening to its radical extreme, as I have said: truth commissions are listening devices, sonospheres, that render certain forms of violence audible.

In short, Murmurs I, or the Wounds of Nature and this curatorial text have to be read alongside Dialogues with Nature as an interpellation to the question about the locus of pain and suffering.[13] Faced with the impossibility of posing this concern about the subjectivity of the tree, what we were left with was radicalizing the notion of listening into the realm of sound, detaching ourselves from the quasi-legal notions of clarification and truth. There I ask myself, how can the “arts” or “artistic practices” in the hands of collectives and individuals help us amplify this concern, not only in Colombia but globally? Perhaps through joint work we can entice the others to resonate deeply and conceive peace on a small scale as a co-vibrational phenomenon.


[1] This tome is divided into three parts The first one, The Book of Anticipations [El Libro de las Anticipaciones], is dedicated to a narrative exploration of the way in which people “anticipate” violence. The second one, The Book of Devastations and Life [El Libro de las Devastaciones y la Vida], focuses on the fractures that occur in everyday life. And the third one, The Book of the Future [Libro del Porvenir], reflects on what I call the social imagination of the future and the social and cultural resources that specific communities have at hand in order to create a sense of the future. The volume is part of a wider concern about “historical memory,” unusually situated in a truth commission that distanced itself from the esthetics of the grotesque that have characterized memory studies in Colombiawhich generally focus on literal violence and bodily abuse. This text proposes a listening act as a “prospective gesture,” excavating, like an archaeologist, “layers of human experience” from a database containing more than sixteen thousand interviews. The testimonies concerning “the pain of nature” that are relevant to this text are condensed in the section “Dialogues with Nature,” at the beginning of the second book. For a presentation on the central concepts and considerations of the book, see: Castillejo-Cuéllar, Alejandro. 2020. “Herida, nación y narración: cómo acoger los testimonios en la Comisión de la Verdad” [“Wound, Nation and Narration: How to Incorporate the Testimonies at the Truth Commission”]. Public Discussion Document, Truth Commission.

[2] This work is part of a joint co-production with sound artist Andrés Torres. It was first presented at Documenta Fifteen, Kassel (Germany) in June 2022. Murmullos is Found at

[3] It is part of the Sound and Memory platform of the testimonial volume of the Final Report:

[4] On ritual readings:

[5] In an almost surreptitious and decolonial way, the testimonial volume of the Final Report explored “stories” that lay beyond the discursive confines of gross violations of human rights, such as those that speak of testimonial spirits of the forest. However, in the context of the Report, the “effects on the territory” are rendered intelligible by way of two main experiences: the idea of a “shifting landscape,” as survivors and victims stated it, and violence against life caregivers in general. This is what the epistemologies of truth commissions render visible. This text explores the space between the “shifting landscapes” and the subject of “abandonment,” creating the threshold area that is Murmullos. See: Feldman, Allen. 2010. “Traumatizing the Truth Commission: Amnesty, Performativity, Intentionalist Teleology, and the Event.E-misférica 7: 2.; Elizabeth Povinelli. 2011. Economies of Abandonment: Social Being and Endurance in Late Liberalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press; Mackenzie, Catriona, Wendy Rogers, and Susan Dodds, eds. 2014. Vulnerability: New Essays in Ethics and Feminist Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[6] The verb “to domesticate” has a double Latin etymology. Not only does it conjure up the idea of “bringing under control” (or “converting animals to domestic use”) by overpowering them, but also “to accustom to home life,” “to adapt to an environment.” The term evokes the possibility of rendering familiar, of bringing home into the private sphere that which is perceived as otherness. Power, control, and homeliness inhabit this term (domus, house (Latin), doma (Greek)). To domesticate is to render familiar (see: Collins. 2009. Collins English Dictionary, Complete and Unabridged. 10th ed. New York: HarperCollins) (emphasis is mine). One of the underlying arguments in this text is that, broadly speaking, the testimony of the “victims of violence” and “nature” is broughtby way of different mechanismsinto the “familiar” world, but also into domesticity. In other words, “unspeakable” (experiences)and this is the paradox I would like to stressare rendered intelligible by the workings of (institutional) language as power. One way to bring them into, and confine them to, the realm of “domesticity” is to install an epistemological “silence” around certain forms of violence that play out in particular ways in specific historical experiences. It is a radical argument, sown as a seed in the middle of a book dedicated to human suffering, to imagine the possibility of trees, forests and spirits as testifying witnesses, as subjects of pain, not subjects of the law. Is nature’s testimony radically unspeakable? The spirits of the forest certainly constitute an affective fabric that dwells in the everyday life of communities.

[7] Much is said about the “territory as a victim,” associated with nature-territory as a “subject in law.” To speak of pain as experience implies situating oneself in other epistemologies, beyond the law, beyond rights.

[8] The “anteriores” [“previous ones”] refers to those who first passed through this world and died. They are not the dead in a strict sense, because they are “incorporeal spirits” that are related to the world of the living. The “pagamento” is a ritual process, an act of gratitude and acknowledgement of the Law of Origin, which diverse indigenous societies perform before any intervention.

[9] A profound ritual form of paying back the “debt” that is owed to mother earth by the fact of being alive as creatures of the Universe.

[10] Here I ask myself, pragmatically, about the transit from aesthesis (seeing or perceiving) to akróasis (listening): instead of referring to a “point of view” or a “worldview” I rather speak about the “point” or “horizon-of-audition” or the “world-audition.” See: Kayser, Hans. 1970. Akróasis: the Theory of World Harmonics. Translation by Robert Lilienfield. Boston: Plowshare Press.

[11] Among afro-Cuban religious practitioners, “shell reading” and “spirit mounting” on the body of the “priest” are a reference to the ritual procedures established to talk to the ancestors.

[12] “Itinerarios de sentido” [“Itineraries of the senses”], as a methodology developed around my fieldwork in South Africa, Colombia, and Mexico, addresses the ways in which people understand the junctures between personal experience and larger political processes. The word ‘sense’ in fact evokes three layers of experience. On the one hand, “sense” is linked to the sensory organs‘the senses’and how they are used to perceive and capture the world around and with us. This idea is translated into a research phase we call sensory-sonic phase: we listen and search for the sounds encrypted in the narratives and the testimonies of people. Secondly, ‘sense as meaning’ is also associated with the narrative possibility of signification and understanding: in other words, victims tell their stories in their own terms. This is a narrative phase. The integration of the sensory world with the world of understanding is what constitutes the experience of ‘dwelling’. Finally, sense has a cartographic-bodily dimension that speaks to the spatial location and movement of the human being: corporality, movement and spatiality integrate themselves into a form of peripatetic form of memorialisation, knowledge-production-in-movement. To summarize, ‘itineraries of the senses’ is a methodology through which we explored personal experiences of the war and survival in specifically situated historical contexts. This was the process at the center of Dialogues with Nature.

[13] I developed the notion of “localization” in Castillejo-Cuéllar, Alejandro. 2014. “La Localización del daño: etnografía, espacio y confesión en el escenario transicional colombiano” [“The Location of Harm: Ethnography, Space and Confession in the Colombia’s Transitional Scenario”]. Horizontes Antropológicos 20, no. 43: 213–236.


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Castillejo-Cuéllar, Alejandro. 2016. “La domesticación del testimonio: audibilidad, performance y la descolonización de la palabra” [The Domestication of Testimony: Audibility, Performance, and the Decolonization of the Word”]. In Víctimas, Memoria y Justicia: Aproximaciones latinoamericanas al Proceso Transicional Colombiano [Victims, Memory and Justice: Latin American Approaches to the Colombian Transitional Process], edited by Neyla Graciela Pardo Abril and Juan Ruiz Celis, 111–125. Bogotá: Universidad Nacional de Colombia.

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