Protocols for Listening
Fred Moten says ‘what’s deep is also really simple’. What makes something ‘deep’ is also that which makes it difficult and therefore worth struggling for. Moten again: ‘Though it might seem like talking with and not to the congregation is the point, the deep and simple secret is not talking, but listening’.
What do you hear? How do you hear it?
I picture a sound system pieced together from old speakers salvaged from the side of the road or rescued from piles of rubbish. I listen for a tone before it sounds, a deep bass note with a history both militant and tender. I wait for an echo to return from a space I have not yet inhabited. I listen for ghosts that haunt our present and usher us toward new futures. I place a hand to my ear or I place your hand on the back of my neck. I listen for how the sounds that move you are moving me.
How do we listen when we are apart?
J shows me an image of two men standing on a roundabout, blocking the passage of a semi-trailer. In the face of this enormous vehicle they are unwavering, firm, staunch. J says getting organised is easier than we might sometimes think, that our organisation might necessarily take the form of disorganisation.
I turn to the person next to me and hatch a plan.
If listening is a site for the organisation of politics, then how do we listen to and for a politics of disorganised organisation?
In between meetings I set the timer on my phone and get into plank position. I squeeze my core and count down with the app. I run up the narrow set of stairs from the lounge room to the bedroom while the app counts down the time it takes to boil an egg. I make lunch and sweep up the bodies of tiny roaches who died overnight by eating soft dabs of poison. During one meeting I realise that the bed is unmade in the background—I imagine my manager noticing the wrinkled blanket, the soft, slept-in sheets, the bloodstains. I try to see if the books on the bedside table are visible to someone peering in from the screen. Marx, Hartman, Boyer; stories of capital, survival, death. During dinner, I feed my child spirals of pasta while shouting into the camera. I look into the interiors of my bosses’ houses: one room has very expensive art; one is decked out entirely with lime green soft furnishings; one has arranged the camera to show only a blank wall. A message arrives from B. She is watching a webinar in which a bunch of white men wearing headsets are rhapsodising from their bedrooms about the future of teaching and the utopia of online classrooms. She is sitting in the car out the front of her house using her phone as a wifi hotspot. The car is the only place where she can’t be found by her child, the only place where she can swap one kind of work for another. What is all this extra work for? Malcolm Harris asks this question while considering the enormous amount of unwaged labour that has reoriented people’s lives, as they move their paid jobs home to join their unpaid jobs or as they are stepped down: ‘In today’s crisis, we’re building tomorrow’s normal.’
What is the sound of a machine breaking down? What noise does this machine make as it refuses to stop? Today, when I woke, I was already exhausted. T sends me an image made by Charles Fremont in 1894, when he was assisting the French scientist and chronophotgrapher Étienne-Jules Marey. The multiply exposed image, a technique pioneered by Marey, shows blacksmiths working at an anvil. The arc of their hammers, the force of each blow, the immensity of labour is traced in the blur of the image. The two bodies are suddenly a multitude, repeating over and over again a single action. I stare at the picture, straining to listen to the bodies within it. Each day we wake to sell our labour so that we might endure our lives. Each night we dream our escape from this relation. Saidiya Hartman writes that ‘the chorus bears all of it for us’. I know this to be true and so I strain to listen for the song that we might sing together, for the bent note that folds back on me, for the call that is given in the response. I listen for a sound that I may not have heard but will certainly recognise. My ear, an opening; my skin, a drum. ‘The chorus’, Hartman writes, ‘is the vehicle for another kind of story, not of the great man or the tragic hero, but one in which all modalities play a part, where the headless group incites change, where mutual aid provides the resource for collective action, not leader and mass, where the untranslatable songs and seeming nonsense make good the promise of revolution.’
At the end of his book Mutual Aid, Kropotkin summarises his argument for mutual aid (he makes this argument against other theories for how humans survive and why). ‘In short’, he writes, ‘neither the crushing powers of the centralized State nor the teachings of mutual hatred and pitiless struggle which came, adorned with the attributes of science, from obliging philosophers and sociologists, could weed out the feeling of human solidarity’. This solidarity is rooted, he explains, through practice. We talk or listen or send notes or sound a call or find a shape for our desires. We shout over the fence or into the window, tune our ear to the soft sounds into and out of houses. Care, argues Kropotkin, is necessary for survival because that which we must survive—the misery of capitalism and its forms of governmentality—requires a kind of solidarity that works not just towards freedom but against death. In the pandemic, this question of care against death is everywhere. And the question of how much death should be tolerated in order to care for the future of capital is being asked daily—more loudly and bluntly than usual. The answer to that question not only requires the refusal of its order (it is capitalism that should die and not us) but also the reclamation of care. Care is not just that which is done at home, off the clock, from the goodness of our hearts, and care is not what we do to fill the gaps left by the state or the capital relation. Care is directly against the state and the market, against the death that both depend on. I stick my head around a corner, my body a fold.
The late Pauline Oliveros offers this score for listening: ‘Walk so silently that the bottoms of your feet become ears.’ I walk with M along the Cooks River and afterwards we lie on the grass while my child listens with her feet. She is not silent—she shrieks with joy as she steps across the soft green covering. I am sure that she hears the earth through her feet and after spending so much time hunkered down inside, feels the experience deeply. M and I had walked west along the river, inhaling the stench of the Cooks: a composite of industrial run-off, rubbish, mangroves, ibis shit, casuarina needles, and other peoples’ sweating, perfumed bodies. We walked past partially submerged shopping trolleys and a wall of graffiti that includes a portrait of Garfield reclining with an accompanying imperative: ‘Never Work’. M told me about the Ciompi, wool-workers and other unrepresented labourers in Florence in the fourteenth century who revolted in the wake of the ‘Black Death’ and took control of the city. Their revolt was a rejection of the heavy taxes imposed by the ruling oligarchs—a strike against the concentration of wealth and the inevitable inequality that was transferred downwards. We talked about organising at this moment, about the need for it and the difficulty of it. I’m buoyed by M’s calm resolve, his patient militancy. As we lay on the ground, under the sky, I listened to the air and its currents of speech, wind, and distant engines. I thought about the hills between the Cooks and my house, a wet, windy passage through Wangal country. I thought about the social formations that have scored the land over and over again; the toxic pelt that settles in the canals; the thick plugs of bush and scrub; the etched flight paths above, now mostly silent. My child traced invisible circles around us, looping together our bodies on the grass. She left small gaps in the lines, leaving spaces for what might enter or what might turn on its heels and disappear.
This, then, is an invitation to listen collectively toward the possibility of something else.
Snack Syndicate, two rats (Andrew Brooks and Astrid Lorange) living on unceded Wangal land; texts, objects, events, meals, and publics.