Listening in Common in Uncommon Times

Ella Finer

I.
Are we flying with the planet or against it?

I am flying back to London on March 14, 2020. The world has already changed forever and will keep changing.

I am going home.

. . . The production of commons requires first a profound transformation in our everyday life, in order to recombine what the social division of labor in capitalism has separated. For the distancing of production from reproduction and consumption leads us to ignore the conditions under which what we eat, wear, or work with have been produced, their social and environmental cost, and the fate of the population on whom the waste we produce is unloaded (Mies, 1999). In other words, we need to overcome the state of irresponsibility concerning the consequences of our actions that results from the destructive ways in which the social division of labor is organized in capitalism; short of that, the production of our life inevitably becomes a production of death for others. As Mies points out, globalization has worsened this crisis, widening the distances between what is produced and what is consumed, thereby intensifying, despite the appearance of an increased global interconnectedness, our blindness to the blood in the food we eat, the petroleum we use, the clothes we wear, and the computers we communicate with. [1]

I am reading these words in my window seat like they are horror—the speaking-in-writing of prophetic blindness to the blood. The irresponsibly interconnected world as its undoing. I am living this—in-flight—this reckoning with distance and disaster.

Are we flying with the planet or against it?”

A young games designer on his way from Athens to Delaware via London looks at the in-flight graphics showing a tiny, white plane following a line to London. He is preoccupied with the flatness of the graphics for representing “a dome?—it doesn’t make sense.” I listen to him and imagine he will be one of the generation who transforms how the world looks in a few years: turning jolting planes crossing pixel-maps into smooth spheres rotating in expert alignment with the globe.

How strange, I think—imagining tech kids changing the way we see the world when the world is changing by the moment because of what we cannot, and never will be able to see.

He talks about a home he knows through story and speech—a folk story his grandmother told him from her home in Guinea, about a little boy and a full moon, and a mother tongue that “cannot be written.” He speaks in Malinke—a language with floating tones. “It can be written in French, but that is not Malinke”—its transcription always an approximation for, a simplification of, what is complex sonic matter.

I am writing myself back onto the plane because here—at the threshold of a new era, in the air—the complexities and vibrant differences and distances in the world and words we use in common take on new resonance. Flying against the planet, home.

“i would sing you the shape of the world between us.” These are Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ words; I have been sending them out to friends; her words collapsing cold distance, beating histories sung by her grandmothers—songs as calls to dream the future as critical action:

i would sing you the shape of the world between us. turn my body into drum to let you know. slam my skin onto the surface of the ocean to tell you.
i am here. wherever you are.

if it’s dream you are listening for. i’ll dream you. if it’s poetry in the morning. whatever. the radio. just test me. there is nowhere i cannot be. there is no sound i cannot travel through. there is no you i don’t surround.

you can look or not look. you can fill your days with running or the shoes of other people. you can suffocate the minutes. i have time. i do not leave you. you can muffle every moment with your fear. it doesn’t matter. i’m still here. and i am here. and i am here. [2]

 

II.
“whatever. the radio. just test me. there is nowhere I cannot be . . .”

. . . We are Radio Alhara from Palestine and Jordan now. I guess in these situations, Palestine is just like everywhere else. What we did was something more global and open to everyone. We directly received messages from people in South Africa, Canada, Japan, and from Europe and the Arab world. The internet kind of takes away from that locality; but at the same time, we are here. [3]

At home, I tune into three quarantine pirate radio stations broadcasting from Beirut, Palestine, and Tunis. Artist Urok Shirhan—who is always listening to multiple time-zones—has told me about these stations transmitting into the acoustic world of her lock-down home life. We keep speaking about how broadcast happens, how we need to attend to it as it disappears—make a date, and tune in.

When I am listening to Alhara, I see Urok’s tiny face in the chat box alongside other listeners who are responding in real time. In the time I am there (with her?) she feels oddly present—communicating in brief, a correspondent across borders—her words in English and Arabic, and flames. This. Is. Fire.

We live in radio, listening to there from here, here from there, and I am here (Gumbs). At the same time, we are here (Khalili). I wonder what being here means right now for my friends across the globe, when here is actually virtually located like never before.

For now, we meet here—in the web and waves—pulling bodies close, closer, and closing the distance between, in the so-called “airy nowhere” I have written about before.

Compelled and confounded by the distance between speaker and receiver in early telephonic communication, an anonymous reporter of the popular science magazine Scientific American called it “an airy nowhere, inhabited by voices and nothing else” . . . [going on] to describe with poetic clarity the strange conditions of speaking over the phone lines: “Between us two there is an airy nowhere, inhabited by voices and nothing else—Helloland I should call it” (Engh, 1994).

Helloland imagines a place of the vast space of nowhere: an invisible landscape contoured by travelling voices. To call this distance between speaker and listener “a land” is to think in terms of defining a site, mapping somewhere within nowhere to play host to the event of voice. The land called “hello” holds a specific purpose, too, as voices reach to fetch a receiver, so that routes can be drawn in the air between two bodies. [4]

I am never sure what I am calling, or writing, into in this time—in my communications I have been saying how that odd phrasing in which an e-mail “finds” someone well is starting to take on new meaning. Finding someone in the airy nowhere or the strange new nowhereas Laura Barton has named the move to online event space in the ether—comes at a cost. At home the Internet is not so freely accessible as outside.

And this brings up another of my conflicted thoughts, oscillating and present in these times—of privilege and precarity. What can we say is in common? And where is our place of commoning? Where are the offline commons now? The cost for keeping “connected”—that not everyone can live on air, or online—is becoming explicit in ways exposing broadband as luxury. Are web-based commons still commons if not everyone can access them from where they call home?

Home is where the heart is, goes the saying. If so, a large and growing number of people in many countries, including Britain, are feeling homeless, even if they have somewhere to live or sleep at any particular moment. The commons and the idea of home are intimately linked. A core claim of the Charter of the Forest was that everybody had a right to a home, and for many people the commons was where that right was ensured. Yet, the idea of home has a double meaning, implying both a place to live and a place to which one has a strong attachment and sustainable sense of belonging. . . . Many feel that they are not “at home” anywhere. [5]

Guy Standing describes the denizen—a term applied in the Middle Ages to the outsider who on entering a town for work was given partial rights—never at home, or never allowed to feel at home. Centuries later Sir William Blackstone describes the denizen in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (1753) as perpetually “in a kind of middle state between an alien and natural-born subject.” Animals and plants are often described as denizens—denizens of the natural world, the in-betweeners of the wild or re-wilded.

The rewilding of theory proceeds from an understanding that first encounters with wildness are intimate and bewilder all sovereign expectations of autonomous selfhood. To be wild in this sense is to be beside oneself, to be internally incoherent, to be driven by forces seen and unseen, to hear in voices, and to speak in tongues. By abandoning the security of coherence, we enter a dark ecology, where, to quote Michel Foucault (1994:302) from The Order of Things, “nature can no longer be good.” But even as wildness is internal in a psychic sense, we also sense it as an extrahuman, suprahuman force, what Timothy Morton (2013) dubs a “hyperobject” and what might be received as a message from nature to humans, reminding us that there could be and probably will be life without “us.” As Nina Simone reminds us, “wild is the wind,” and the wildness of the weather, internally and externally, implies a pathetic fallacy that tethers the undoing of the human to the rage of new storms blowing in across the Caribbean. Wildness is where the environment speaks back, where communication bows to intensity, where worlds collide, cultures clash, and things fall apart. [6]

The observance of Halberstam and Nyong’o that “we live in wild times” just got wilder. In what ways are our communications bowing to the intensity of this time? How do we commune under pressure while uncommonly at home? In the absence of words can we stay silent and call out?

In correspondence with visual artist Vibeke Mascini about such forces seen and unseen, about vibrations reaching across distance, about unheard and “other” frequencies, about forms of communication beyond human hearing, alongside listening to the “silent” whale recording from the British Library Sound Archive, I wrote last week asking how we attune with/to unclear or uncommon sound, especially in unclear or uncommon times.

How do we cope with, deal with, let alone attend to, subjects we cannot hold in hand, we can neither see nor hear? Or subjects that appear as such? Subjects that shape-shift, change scale and frequency, medium and channel? [7]

By abandoning the security of coherence? So as to find and invent new ways of being in the world together while apart, as the new in-betweeners, the new denizens? To meet at distance so we can be close again to our living and our dead. As Alexis Pauline Gumbs writes so brilliantly, so radically, in relation to the collectivity of coral and its poetic importance for decolonization, is there such a thing as one person?

I see coral as another narrating life-form, similar in some ways to the life-forms that tell themselves a story about being human, but with crucial revisions to that story. Coral, like us, build on a massive scale. Coral reefs become the size of cities in the ocean; they are the only other organisms that build on such a large scale. And their dead stay with them; they live atop the skeletons of their ancestors. Or their skeletons are their ancestors? And this is part of the poetic importance of coral, and their connection to the possibility of a new science of the word. Scientists can’t seem to describe coral. The collectivity of coral (corals) exceeds the language. Is there such a thing as one coral? Aren’t coral inherently collective? Would we think of them as multiple animals with one stomach? Or one animal with many many many many mouths? And what about us, living on the same matter, with multiple hungers and resources that we pretend are not shared, so many of us making cities that we pretend are not always built on the dead—is there such a thing as one person? [8]

 

Note
An expanded version of this text is included in Ella Finer’s forthcoming book Acoustic Commons and the Wild Life of Sound (Berlin: Errant Bodies). With thanks to the Acoustic Commons project for inviting me to think alongside/through/with.

 

References
[1] Federici, Silvia. Re-Enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons. Oakland: PM Press, 2019. 109.
[2] Gumbs, Alexis Pauline. “Whale Songs.” Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism, 18.1 (2019): 8-13. 11.
[3] Yazan Khalili in interview with Majd Shidiac, Yamakan: Reimagining Spaces on a Pirate Radio (Part II: Palestine), https://projectrevolver.org/features/yamakan-reimagining-spaces-on-a-pirate-radio-part-i-palestine/
[4] Finer, Ella. “The Aura of the Aural.” Performance Research, 22:3 (2017): 15-19.15.
[5] Standing, Guy. Plunder of the Commons: A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth. London: Pelican, 2019.
[6] Halberstam, Jack, and Tavia Nyong’o. “Introduction: Theory in the Wild.” South Atlantic Quarterly, 117.3 (2018): 453-464. 454.
[7] Letter from Ella Finer to Vibeke Mascini as part of Vibeke Mascini: INFRA, Delfina Foundation London, 2020, https://www.delfinafoundation.com/platform/vibeke-mascini-infra/
[8] Gumbs, Alexis Pauline. “Being Ocean as Praxis: Depth Humanisms and Dark Sciences.” Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences, 28.2 (2019): 335-352. 340.

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