Hungry listening

James Parker
March 1, 2024


Xwélmexw (Stó:lō) scholar Dylan Robinson’s 2020 book Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies is a pathbreaking account of the encounters between ‘Indigenous song and Western art music’, and a virtuosic performance of decolonial listening. The term ‘hungry listening’, for Robinson, names a specifically ‘settler colonial form of perception’ (2020, 2). It is drawn from two Halq’eméylem words: shxwelítemelh (the adjective for settle or white person’s methods/things) and xwélalà:m (the word for listening). shxwelítemelh, Robinson explains, comes from the word xwelítem (white settler), meaning starving person, because that is how the xwélmexw first encountered settlers in 1858 at the start of the gold rush. Starving for food, and starving for gold. Today, we might add starving for data.

Robinson’s work and this metaphor of ‘hungry listening’ (but it is not just a metaphor) is highly suggestive when it comes to the contemporary media environment, and the ever evolving ‘uses of signal processing and machine learning to extract useful information from sound’. Machine listening is also voracious: also extractive, expansionist, and universalising. There always seems to be more to hear, more data to be exhorted, gathered and analysed, more classifications to be performed and acted upon. The gold always seems to end up in the same peoples’ hands.

The coloniality of machine listening isn’t surprising. As Couldry and Mejias (2019) point out, the techniques of contemporary data science emerge out of colonial capitalism. What’s more complicated is to think through what a decolonial machine listening might look like; or whether such a thing is even possible.

The philosopher Yuk Hui has called this possibility ‘technodiversity’: a corrective to contemporary technoscience’s imperial logic that is purposely a-modern and capable of producing, therefore, less ‘hungry’, more local or ‘situated’ (Haraway) listenings: a technopolitical analogue, in other words, of biodiversity, multinaturalism, multiculturalism, or legal pluralism.

What this amounts to in practice, however, is an urgent but incredibly difficult question. As Julius Gavroche has argued (2021), even Hui’s own articulations of technodiversity have so far been light on details and prescriptions. But the impulse is surely correct.


Read Hungry Listening and one of the other texts below. Make sure to distribute the texts through the group. Present some thoughts on the encounter between these texts to the rest of the group. Listen to everyone’s thoughts in turn before having a conversation together about the process.


Yuk Hui (2017) ‘Cosmotechnics as Cosmopolitics’, e-flux

Couldry and Mejias (2019) The Costs of Connection: How Data is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating It for Capitalism, Stanford University Press

Dylan Robinson (2020) Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies, University of Minnesota Press

Jason Edward Lewis (ed) (2020) Indigenous Protocol and Artificial Intelligence: Position Paper

Joel Spring and Jazz Money (2020) ‘Lessons in how not to be heard’, Liquid Architecture x Unsound

Keoni Mahelona (2020) Te reo Māori Speech Recognition: A Story of Community, Trust, and Sovereignty

Angie Abdilla (2020), Interview: Decolonizing the Digital, Machine Listening

Vinícius Portella (2022) ‘Cosmotechnics and the Multicultural Trap’, Triple Ampersand

Jonathan Sterne and Mehak Sawhney (2022) ‘The Acousmatic Question and the Will to Datify:, Low-Resource Languages, and the Politics of Machine Listening’, Kalfou Vol 9(2)

Richardson and Munster (2023), ‘Pluralising the Planetary: The Radical Incompleteness of Machinic Envisioning’, Media and Environment 5(1)