“Listening in Common in Uncommon Times,” by Ella Finer, appears in the May/June 2020 issue of KROnline.
Are we flying with the planet or against it?
As hard as it may be to remember how it feels to take a flight in these strange, earthbound times, it’s impossible not to feel the resonance of the opening line of Ella Finer’s powerful essay, “Listening in Common in Uncommon Times.” We’re carried along by forces greater than us, but so often it feels like we’re flying against the planet, simultaneously caught in a moment of timelessness and rushing into a future that we can’t imagine or anticipate. What do we have in common in this time when so much conspires to divide us? What responsibilities do we have to each other? What words can we use not simply to articulate our isolation, but to allow us to see the realities to which, as Silvia Federici points out, we have allowed ourselves to become blind: our blindness to the blood in the food we eat, the petroleum we use, the clothes we wear, and the computers we communicate with.
We live in an age of chat boxes, tiny faces speaking to us—both strangely present and painfully absent—on our computer screens. We live in radio, listening to there from here, here from there. What does it mean, Finer asks, to speak to each other through this distance, “when here is actually-virtually located like never before.” A sound artist and theorist, Finer is an explorer of “the vast space of nowhere” that we inhabit as we reach out to each other from our separate isolations, imagining it as “an invisible landscape contoured by travelling voices.” How, she wonders, can we build a commons—a place to speak together, rather than in isolation—in these echoing virtual caverns built by and for the high-tech high fliers of late capitalism? Are we flying with the planet or against it?
In the U.K, a common is a place that is both wild and tame: shared land that a community allows to return to its wild state. Finer imagines a “rewilding” of this virtual commons under the intensity of our need to communicate with each other from our shared isolation. How do we find and invent new ways of being in the world together while apart? To answer this question, she argues, we have to think beyond our previous experience of ourselves as individuals, to imagine that we might be defined more by what we have in common—our words, our voices—than what separates us.
As I write this, it’s Blackout Tuesday. Social media has gone dark in grief and anger. Across the room, a television screen broadcasts images of protest marchers, hands raised in defiant surrender. We inhabit a wilderness of voices, some howling, some raging, some speaking in quiet despair. And yet, for the first time in what feels like an eternity, I see crowds—masked, but not muffled—raising their voices together. It’s a scene that is both tragically too common, and sadly uncommon in the life of our nation. Ella Finer’s meditation on the need to “rewild” our commons by imagining new forms of collective speech and listening reflects this strange moment in its pervasive sense of isolation and the imperative we feel to make our voices heard.
Ella Finer’s “Listening in Common in Uncommon Times” is an excerpt from her new book Acoustic Commons and the Wild Life of Sound, forthcoming from Errant Bodies Press, Berlin.