As part of the 2016 landmark peace accord, the Colombian State launched a four-year “Comisión de la Verdad,” or Truth and Reconciliation Commission as known in other post-conflict and transitioning contexts. Concomitant with transitional justice procedures globally, this truth commission sought to understand the causes of the sixty year long armed conflict in Colombia through original research and testimonies of harm and suffering offered by victims throughout the national territory. All eleven commissioners were tasked with avoiding a unifying narrative and instead building an open-ended, multi-layered, and plural account of the conflict, all the while centering the voices and experiences of those who most suffered the consequences of the war: campesinos, children, women and LGBT+, Black and Indigenous communities.
Carried out between 2018 and 2022, the commission yielded a staggering amount of information chiefly relayed to the public in ten volumes, thereafter remediated for public dissemination in the form of documentary films, infographics, graphic novels, exhibitions, and field recordings. The latter is what anthropologist and former truth commissioner Alejandro Castillejo-Cuéllar chose to focus on as editor-in-chief of the testimonial volume “Cuando los Pájaros no Cantaban: Historias del Conflicto Armado en Colombia” (When the Birds Didn’t Sing: Stories from Colombia’s Armed Conflict), a part of the Final Report of the Truth Commission. In a three episode series with web-based station Radio Elsewheres, musicologist and sound artist Daniel Villegas converses with fellow academics (myself included) and Castillejo-Cuéllar himself about the format of these recordings, the modes of listening they produce, their conditions of possibility, and their relationship to truth-telling practices and historical memory. Alternatively, the present review forum discusses the possibilities that bear out of sound art for the anthropology of violence and ethnographic engagements with aural epistemologies and multi-species ontologies. For this purpose, we chose to center the review around the sixteen-minute multichannel sound installation “Murmullos I, o la Herida de la Naturaleza” (Murmurs I, or the Wound of Nature), based on the recordings of the testimonial volume and co-produced by Castillejo-Cuéllar and artist Andrés Torres.
In a text that is arguably a seminal precursor of anthropology’s embrace of multimodality from the mid-1990s, Lucien Castaing-Taylor—long before his role as director of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab—confronted the discipline’s outstanding “iconophobia” at its root: written logocentrism’s anxiety vis-à-vis film’s open-ended semiotic excess, that sea of palpable materiality in icons and indexes that offers itself as a Whole, and yet is irreducible to a discursive assembly, a record, or to piecemeal data (Castaing-Taylor 1996). Further, Castaing-Taylor suggests anthropologists fear that the audio-visual medium is more inviting to interpretations than text, and that embracing a “filmic ethnography” might compromise their very own authorial drive in turn. From what has come of his own work and that of his artistic cadre, we know Castaing-Taylor has a solution in mind: to cast aside epistemological quandaries for a phenomenological experience of the world, or, rather, to build on art's capabilities to tease out lived experience—as per his borrowing of pragmatist philosopher John Dewey (2005).
Castillejo-Cuéllar's quest to elicit the sonorous residues that make up the sufferings of human and “more-than-human” lifeworlds for the purposes of restorative and reparative justice in Colombia straddles along similar lines as Castaing-Taylor’s inquiry. The former truth commissioner's decade-long research into aurality in the context of truth, reparation, and reconciliation has led him to humbly extend an invitation more so than offering a solution: “What will happen to ethnographic knowledge if we situate it not in the realm of text but in the realm of sound, of aurality?” In putting this call out, Castillejo-Cuéllar hopes to instill a shift from the ethnographic to the ethnophonic, where the engulfing immediacy of êkhos displaces the purely representational graphos, not only upsetting disciplinary and methodological limits, but, perhaps more importantly, questioning the transnationally standardized discursive frameworks of transitional justice, wherein truth amounts to verbal testimony (a secular confession) and reparation can only be conceded to victimized human subjects. Ultimately, Castillejo-Cuéllar singles out anthropology's most dumbfounding contradictory attitude towards working with sound (as opposed to an under-appreciated complement to text or as subsumed by the moving image): ethnographers pride themselves on their good listening, on their attunement to speech and the aural atmospheres of social life, yet they often resist working on and through sound as a standalone medium. Is anthropology also phonophobic and has lost it at the soundscapes?
In reviewing “Murmullos I, o la Herida de la Naturaleza” (Murmurs I, or the Wound of Nature)—as showcased in Documenta 15 (Kassel, Germany, 2022)—, this forum brings into conversation three transversal topics: “art” or cultural production at the service of transitional justice, the “environmental turn” in its deliberations, and memory and the ravages of war as rendered by sonorous means. These lines of inquiry beg urgent questions, addressing not solely the nature of sound recording/production as ethnography, but generating its coordinates within a broader political economy of exhibition and circulation of sound installations, as well as the distribution of the audible for diverse audiences.
— Alejandro Jaramillo, ed.
Castaing-Taylor, Lucien. 1996. “Iconophobia: How Anthropology Lost it at the Movies.” Transition, No. 69: 64–88.
Dewey, John. 2005 . Art as Experience. New York: Perigree.
Posts in This Series
Introduction “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 inev... More
In response to profe Alejandro Castillejo-Cuéllar’s provocative pieces, I would like to offer an echo, a proposition, and caveat. An echo... More
“But where is the armed conflict?” This was a common question asked to us in Bogotá when presenting our investigation of land dispossession in the region of Ura... More
On the Limits of Transitional Justice—Reflections on ‘Recalibrating Listening: Of Trees as Subjects of Pain’
I feel confident that nowhere in the voluminous literature of that most booming of academic disciplines, transitional justice, can one locate a reference to tha... More