Distant Voices (In Fluid Communion)

josie sparrow

Birdsong, a passing car. The movement of water. A great dissonance of sunlight, glaring and sibilant, like a high peal of bells. Scattered fragments of conversation, trickling in and out. A little faded, a little fuzzy. The connection is fragile. And still, we commune.1

The word communication comes to us from the Latin commūnicō—I share, I make common, I connect, I join, I unite. The word telephone derives from the Greek τῆλε (tēle)—far, distant—and φωνή (phōnē)—voice, sound, speech. To communicate by telephone, then, is a union of distant voices. A way of connecting with what is far away, of being “together in our voices,” as Ruth put it. A union—or maybe something holier than that, sacred as love.2 A communion.

There are so many ways to be distant.
There are so many ways to be together.

Telephony, like water, is guided by currents. Sound and water move in patterns we call waves. A conversation can flow, words can come flooding out of our mouths. We might pour out our hearts, or bottle it up. And when I listen closely, deep in the night, doesn’t the cadence of your breathing remind me of the sea? Water, it would seem, is at the heart of how we think—in English, at least—about how we communicate. About how we join together, make common.

The feminist scholar Astrida Neimanis proposes that, rather than conceptualising bodies as discrete, individual, hermetically-sealed entities, we might instead think them as “bodies of water”. Such bodies, she writes,

puddle and pool. They seek confluence. They flow into one another in life-giving ways, but also in unwelcome, or unstoppable, incursions. Even in an obstinate stagnancy they slowly seep and leak. We owe our own bodies of water to others, in both dribbles and deluges.3

It isn’t only that we contain water—no. We are water. The hegemonic notion of bodies as vessels or containers is rooted in a rationalist conception—the Cartesian split—of minds that inhabit bodies, which are little more than automata, tools for us (we are, in this thinking, located entirely in our minds) to use. Accordingly, we are all of us desert islands, brains in vats, suspended all alone in an ocean of brutish physical matter which must be disciplined, must be brought under our control. Desiccated by this dry thinking, Enlightenment colonisers drew maps, ‘ruled the waves’, organised living beings into distinct scientific categories—anything for control. They didn’t realise that the problem wasn’t a lack of mastery or tidiness, but this false isolation, the enforced and moralised separation that happened when the individual was (mis)taken as the basic unit of being. The harm that has been done, the sacrifices made at the altar of the supreme ‘I’. The distance that’s been forced between us all.

Water and listening flow together at the heart of justice. Whole world-systems are designed to render unhearable the suffering of those constructed, by the states of the imperial core, as ‘others’, and so much of that suffering is mediated through water. Billions of people worldwide—including many in the wealthy nations of the Global North—lack safe and reliable access to water. Where many cultures view water as an active and connective presence4, hegemonic Euro-Enlightenment thinking decrees that it is empty. Where water was once a medium of communication and coming-together, as well as a safe means of travel and a site of resistance5, it is now more often conceptualised as dangerous or hostile, and used as a fortification and a weapon in the violent border regimes of the Global North. Every day, countless precious people climb into boats and cross the ocean, desperate for a safer place to live. Many will not make it to the shore—water, once again, deployed in the service not of connection, but of deadly separation.

For Indigenous peoples in every land, struggles over water have coursed through questions of sovereignty, survival, and solidarity and kinship with all beings. Nick Estes, the Lakȟóta Marxist scholar, records the ways in which the settler-colonial US state has deployed (and continues to deploy) dams, pipelines, and reservoirs as forms of aggressive infrastructure. Dams, he observes,

personify settler colonialism—their concrete and rolled earth endowed with the will to disrupt, flood, dispossess, remove, and ultimately eliminate Native society.6

Water, here, is not viewed as a resource to be ‘managed’ or an asset to be ‘possessed’, but as an active part of Indigenous society. Writing about Indigenous resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline, in which the full force of the militarised US state (including, in freezing weather, water cannons) was turned on peaceful Water Protectors over and again, Estes raises a question which is, I think, of tidal importance:

While corporations take on legal personhood under current US law, Water Protectors personify water and enact kinship to the water, the river, enforcing a legal order of their own. If the water, a relative, is not protected, then the river is not free, and neither are its people… The Water Protectors also ask us: what does water want from us? What does the earth want from us?7

To think, to love, and to listen both with water and as water might offer an opportunity to unmake this system of domination and unlistening; a system where a corporation can be a person but a river cannot, where the laws
and traditions of Indigenous people can be effectively overwritten by violence, where prayers and rituals can be met with bullets, and where all of this can falsely be called “justice”. A system which renders our relatives into ‘resources’, which dams our rivers, blocks our ears, encloses our hearts. Which strands us—those of us who’ve been shaped by and subjected to the binary traditions of Euro-Enlightenment thought—on arid desert islands called ‘I’.

Stranded as we are upon these islands, how can we reach one another? How can we unenclose our hearts? How to view one another not as Other Bodies, as tools, or vessels, or obstacles around which we must navigate, but as flowing streams, intervolved and intervolving, collectively, continuously. What role can listening play? How can the waves and currents unite our distant voices?

The practice of listening is a practice of intimacy, and like many intimacies, it’s also a practice of trust. To fully open to another is a frightening thing when everything we’ve learnt about how to be human orbits around the figure of the individual. The individual: that which cannot be divided; something fortified and singular. But watery thinking suggests otherwise.

Neimanis describes how, in moments of difficulty or overwhelm, “one’s assemblage of watery bodiedness can spill beyond the discrete comfort of the human, and in doing so reemphasise the flimsy membrane that just barely holds this conceit together, but which is patrolled all the more for it.”8 In other words, it’s precisely this sense of ‘overspilling’ that makes us feel so conscious of, and anxious about, our capacities as containers. Every worry about ‘being too much’, every awkward regret at ‘over-sharing’ (what a concept!)—all of it underpinned by a strange sort of fear, as though ‘failing’ to adequately ‘contain ourselves’, or to retain the necessary Cartesian distance from our bodies and emotions, renders us unworthy of respect or care. In a world-system that despises and punishes vulnerability, this is an understandable way to feel.

I think the reverse is true, as well. In opening ourselves to another, perhaps we worry that their flowing will inundate us—a deluge, a tidal wave—and that it will be too much to bear. Perhaps our listening will reveal to us the ways in which we have hurt somebody, and perhaps, governed by the authority of the onto-epistemological ‘I’, we are afraid of what that will ‘reveal’ about ‘us’—as though we were a solid and unchanging thing, eternally either Good or Bad! Perhaps we’re afraid that our selves will dissolve in the flood, and we’ll never again be able to swim to surface—as though we were only in water, and not of water! As though we were something static, something stagnant.

Against this, I would offer an invocation: panta rhei. That short phrase is how Plato summed up the thought of his predecessor, Heraclitus: panta rhei, everything flows.9 This has been popularised as the maxim “we can never step into the same river twice”. What Heraclitus actually said was this:

One cannot step twice into the same river, nor can one grasp any mortal substance in a stable condition, but it scatters and again gathers; it forms and dissolves, and approaches and departs.10

We never step into the same river twice, yes, but also we are never the same “we” twice. You, and me, and the river, and our voices, and the ways in which we connect: changing, always changing; scattering and dissolving before we can grasp hold of it. To communicate—to unite, to make common—in these conditions requires a commitment to listening—to truly listening, because whatever we say, whoever we are, is continually in flux. This calls for care-full-ness, for trust, for courage. It requires a promise that we will never reify one another, never hold each other in place (no enforced stagnation!); a promise that we will never consciously permit that terrible and omnipresent force, the letter I, to dam our flowing.

I suppose, at the end of it all, I’m talking about love. Love as a practice of listening, love as a practice of flowing. Love as a practice of courage, and as a practice of collective and reciprocal liberation. Love calls us to go beyond the play of light that shimmers on the surface, to go beyond, softly and vulnerably, into the depths. Trust me, I will hold you, just as you hold me. Break the surface: it will not reject you. Know this, and only this. Swim, and be only a swimmer. Love, and be only a lover. Call across the distance, and have faith that I will listen.

The briefest confluence changes both the streams. The waters mix together, composing and recomposing. A part of one another, apart from one another, entangling and co-creating. Together, however distant. In fluid communion.


  1. Readers may notice that I use words such as ‘I’, ‘we’, ‘one another’ etc. even though I’m trying to suggest ways of relating that are less reliant on the binary thinking that would seem to underpin these terms. I suspect my contention would be that undoing those binaries serves to re-articulate, or at least re-situate, the terms—but I also think it’s worth highlighting that these terms and this thinking are fundamental to expression in the English language, and that inhabiting this contradiction can be generative!
  2. Joy Division. 1979. Transmission. Factory Records FAC13.
  3. Astrida Neimanis. 2017. Bodies of Water: Feminist Posthuman Phenomenology. London: Bloomsbury. p.80.
  4. See Sam Low. n.d. ‘A Sea of Islands’. Hawaiian Voyaging Traditions. [link]. Accessed 22 March 2021.
  5. See Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker. 2012. The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. London: Verso.
  6. Nick Estes. 2019. Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance. London: Verso. p.255.
  7. Estes (2019), pp.256–7.
  8. Neimanis (2017), p.125.
  9. Charles H Kahn. 2001. The Art and Thought of Heraclitus: An edition of the fragments with translation and commentary. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press. p.4.