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Listening to Gibbons in the Anthropocene: Politics, Possibilities, and Precarity in the Aural Labor of Hylobatid Conservation

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Abstract

Bringing an ethnomusicological perspective to the front lines of environmental conservation, this dissertation is a multispecies ethnography conducted at the Gibbon Conservation Center in Southern California—a facility dedicated to the care of gibbons, severely endangered, arboreal ape species endemic to the threatened rainforests of South and Southeast Asia. Gibbons are known for the complex and coordinated vocalizations they sing each day, understood by primatologists to facilitate bonding amongst monogamously mated pairs and/or define territorial boundaries. Grounded in over a year’s ethnographic fieldwork among a small group of conservationists and the approximately forty gibbons for which they care, this dissertation examines the ways in which sound—sometimes as a material force, and sometimes as a metaphor—suffuses the practical, ethical, and political aspects of saving a species from extinction. It traces how the ubiquity of gibbon song, and its importance to the sustenance of gibbon sociality, translates into the work of gibbon caretakers. Not only does the ear figure as a crucial tool in the daily work of monitoring gibbon welfare; more broadly, the acoustic provides both motivational and methodological tools with which to sound an emergent human-gibbon interface. At the same time, the dissertation considers the problems that sonic models pose for gibbon conservation and multispecies relations more broadly. Demonstrating ethnomusicology’s ability to participate within larger intellectual conversations regarding the material and theoretical implications of the Anthropocene, this dissertation concludes that gibbon conservation’s elision of the otological and the ontological is precisely the fraught medium through which the future of each gibbon species will be realized.

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This item is under embargo until June 9, 2024.