Infinite Ear : The Dead are People Like Everyone Else [a Portrait of Michèle and Philippe]

Infinite Ear: Portraits is a collection of stories of individuals who were confronted with a transformation in their perception of sound and relationship to hearing. A number of authors accepted the challenge of translating these experiences through writing. Authors, readers, and the portraits’ subjects are confronted with the main questions behind Infinite Ear’s research: how can we understand and feel perceptions of sound radically different from our own?

Michèle and Philippe are psychic mediums working in a centre in Belgium. They are among those who have shared their practice with philosopher Vinciane Despret, who embarked on research into the ways some of us are able to welcome the presence of the dead in their lives. “The dead are people like everyone else,” says Philippe.


“Sound sensitivity suggests to us a different idea of truth. The truth of sounds is nothing like a message of truth, as sounds don’t really have referents. Theirs is a generative kind of truth: they are true to the extent to which they change the world.” (Thibault De Meyer, “Salomé Voegelin, Sonic Possible Worlds. Hearing the Continuum of Sound ,” Lectures, 2015)

What does it mean to hear when one hears those who have left us? Michèle and Philippe, both mediums at a spiritualist center that organizes regular séances in the city where I live, have been having such experiences for many years. That they are mother and son comes as no surprise, as the gift runs in the family: Michèle recalls that a granddad on her father’s side could feel the influence of forces “that we don’t understand.” Not only can the gift be inherited, in their family it also receives a warm welcome. Michèle was lucky, she admits. Her mother never questioned her ability to sense the “strange things” she reported experiencing as a child. Michèle grew up, without knowing it, on the site of an old military barracks. Incessant nightmares haunted her, of people shot dead and falling off a wall. Later, she found out that this was the place where German soldiers once executed their prisoners. One day, at the age of 42, she heard a voice that told her to return to the street where she used to go to school until she turned 19. Without really understanding what was going on, she obeyed. As she was approaching the school, the voice told her to stop and she felt a hand on her cheek, which turned her head toward a spiritualist house. She was received at the house and from that day started practicing automatic writing. She received dictations from a woman named Léonie, who told Michèle her tragic story: she had died together with her three children. She gave the date of her death, which allowed Michèle to locate her grave in the cemetery. As for Philippe, at a very young age he often surprised buddies who asked for advice with his strangely wise responses, which often perplexed the young man himself. This is what often marks instances of a different experience of the world: the fundamentally enigmatic quality of what we might define as the margins of the real. At times when life subjects us to particularly painful trials and tribulations, instances of altered consciousness multiply. Philippe chose to pursue the education offered by the spiritualist circle, to learn, as he puts it, “how to turn the tap on and off.” This education, he insists, was very important: it is possible that a large number of schizophrenia diagnoses result from the inability of people “who are able to hear” to tap out of it.

Of course, there is more than just hearing. Depending on circumstances and on the medium, other senses come into play. Michèle recalls a séance where a smell of wood emerged as she looked at the photograph of a deceased person. “Did he work with wood?” she asked. The son of the person in question replied negatively. “That’s strange,” she insisted, “I can smell wood and see wood chippings.” At which the client exclaimed, “Oh, but that was his favorite hobby!” If multiple registers of the sensory can be used to transmit the message, the one that is better developed in the medium will be preferred. “I came to the conclusion that spirits must have studied pedagogy,” says Philippe with a smile. “In my case, I am more of an auditory thinker and I mostlyreceive auditory messages, while I have less success with visual messages. Spirits try to transmit the messages in the sensory register of the medium they are addressing.”But no matter how they arrive—be it in the form of images, smells or words—both Michèle and Philippe admit that they don’t always understand the messages they deliver. And, Philippe adds, messages that take the medium by surprise are often the most convincing ones. At times, a message will take a path so devious that it will only start making sense as it comes in touch with the real: reality will retroactively give the message its meaning.

When Michèle heard the voice of her former fiancé call her by the pet name he had given her, she understood he was no longer alive. And when she asked him, he confirmed that he had taken his own life. Since his own family was opposed to their marriage, he explained, that was the only way he could “stay with her.” She visited his grave every day until she heard a voice that said, “There is no need to come any more, he has already ascended.”

“Sometimes, a message arrives in a foreign language,” Michèle says, “and I hear it for the first time as somebody translates.” In Philippe’s case, spirits tend to overcome language difficulties in a different way: by sending him concepts or non-verbalized thoughts. This shows the complex nature of such perceptual experiences. One can receive words that are not of linguistic register. Of course, one might say such words are closer to images that can be heard. This complexity becomes even more of a paradox when Philippe explains that he has to close his eyes in order to see, and that what he hears and what is received as a vocal message is heard without any stimulation of auditory neurons.

Anthropologist Christophe Pons has pointed out that in Iceland, where the culture of interacting with the dead is particularly strong, people who can sense the presence of spirits have asserted that they do not exactly experience them as visions, and yet were able to describe the color of their clothes. This paradox, as Pons explains, arises from the fact that such experiences are inscribed into “particular modalities of experimenting,” which allow us to understand and describe them. What mediums hear (or see or feel) becomes an object of such experimenting. Just like they learn to open or close themselves to messages from the dead and to control their flux, we can assume that their apprenticeship has a similar effect on how they perceive things and is the object of a true culture of “inner senses,” which Tanya Luhrmann examines in the book When God Talks Back. My hypothesis is that this culture of inner senses is made possible (through apprenticeship and in very gifted people) because it reconnects us with the transmodal depth that characterizes our sensory experiences in early childhood, before we learn a language (and of which certain people—especially artists—remain aware). The experiences of very young children are transmodal in the sense that they don't make distinctions that language and culture will later impose on their sensory perception: a sunbeam can be seen, felt, and tasted. It can also be experienced musically. Only later (and with considerable variations from culture to culture) do we learn to categorize experiences of the real world into “seeing,” “feeling,” “hearing,” and “tasting,” and lose the ability to experience the real with multiple senses without distinguishing between them. But that does not happen to everyone. Some people see numbers as colors or even as instances of unique beauty; others experience colors as sounds. Again, images that are not seen can be heard without ears being involved, and a smell can be experienced without inhaling. In fact, such moments of grace still happen to all of us, but they are fleeting, ephemeral experiences of which we sometimes remain unaware.This particular ability, however, is only a tiny part of the gift cultivated by mediums, for if transmodality does away with our usual categories of sensory perception, it also reaches beyond them to other forms of the sensory, which are associated with different regimes of being. Hearing what is not audible, one does not limit oneself to an exploration of gaps between various modes of perception, but ventures further into what anthropologist Maurice Bloch has elegantly defined as “breaches between being and non-being.” To hear, in this sense, means to make perceptible other ways of being and to give them a chance to come into existence.


  • Vinciane Despret

    The portraits are printed and distributed on the occasion of the exhibition Infinite Ear at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, Moscow, taking place from June 8 to September 2, 2018.