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Conference presentation: Listening to (ear)witness Breathless the podcast: contesting carceral logics, sounding human dignity


From the indefinite detention of asylum seekers and refugees on former Australian colonial territories in offshore ‘black sites’ (Pugliese, 2013), to the over-incarceration and deaths in custody of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, racialised carceral logics and the surveillance of blackness (Browne, 2015) are at the heart of the settler-colonial Australian state.

This paper frames the Australian podcast series Breathless as a sonic media intervention that disrupts the norms of listening and attention that silence or sensationalise these modes of violence, contesting mainstream media representations. Made by community radio station 2SER in Sydney in partnership with independent media organisation Guardian Australia, Breathless bears witness to the life and death of young Dunghutti man David Dungay Jr. who died in Sydney’s Long Bay jail in 2015 from positional asphyxia following restraint and sedation by state correctional services officers. Breathless is part of an emerging model of collaborative podcasting that combines independent journalism, community radio, and grassroots activism to amplify the voices of those whose lives are impacted by state-sanctioned violence and incarceration. The podcast raises vital questions about the conditions of listening and being heard when the voices of First Nations people are silenced, discredited or ignored in mainstream media.

The podcast follows the 2018 coronial inquest into Dungay’s death, and walks alongside members of the Dunguay family whose campaign to raise awareness of Indigenous deaths in custody motivates their ongoing struggle for justice. Central to the inquest is prison CCTV footage of the last moments of Dungay’s life that captures him in a state of increasing duress. Repeatedly telling correctional services officers ‘I can’t breathe’, Dungay’s final words -- uttered twelve times like an incantation -- hauntingly echoes the last words of Eric Garner, the unarmed black man who died under restraint by police in 2014 in the United States.

Bringing an orientation towards sound into conversation with theoretical concepts of political listening (Bickford, 1996; Bassel, 2017; Dreher 2009, 2018), media witnessing (Lydon, 2018; Peters, 2001) and earwitnessing (Lloyd, 2009), this paper conducts a close listening of four episodes of Breathless to locate it within a larger ‘archive of breathlessness’ left in the wake of colonisation and violence (Sharpe, 2013). Listening along and against ‘the archival grain’ (Stoler, 2002), I attend to the sounds of Dungay’s death and the family’s grief, beyond the evidentiary framing of the CCTV footage. As a provocation to stretch the ear - to slow down, to listening again, to listen differently - I argue Breathless presses us to register the ‘continuity of colonial practices’ (Carlson et al. 2016) found in the details of David Dungay’s death, while attending to his dignity and the dignity of his family in its wake.


Bassel, L. (2017). Listening as Solidarity. In The Politics of Listening (71-87). Palgrave.

Bickford, S. (2018). The dissonance of democracy: Listening, conflict, and citizenship. Cornell University Press.

Carlson, B. L., Jones, L. V., Harris, M., Quezada, N., & Frazer, R. (2017). ‘Trauma, Shared Recognition and Indigenous Resistance on Social media’. Australasian Journal of Information Systems, 21.

Dreher, T. (2009). Listening across difference: Media and multiculturalism beyond the politics of voice. Continuum, 23(4), 445-458.

Lloyd, J. (2009). The listening cure. Continuum, 23(4), 477-487.

Lydon, J. (2018) Visualizing Human Rights. UWA Press.

Peters, J. D. (2009). Witnessing. In Media witnessing (23-48). Palgrave Macmillan.

Pugliese, J. (2013). State violence and the execution of Law: Biopolitcal caesurae of torture, black sites, drones. Routledge.

Sharpe, C. (2016). In the wake: On blackness and being. Duke University Press.

Stoler, A. L. (2010). Along the archival grain: Epistemic anxieties and colonial common sense. Princeton University Press.