If the practice of freedom is the organisation of power and the practice of listening is the organisation of a people, then what is the sound of freedom and how might we listen to / for / within that sound?
— Ultra Red
Most mornings I wake up early with my daughter who is eight months old and an early riser. She sounds a call to play that must be heeded and together we move into the living room to begin the day – she, fresh and spritely; me, slow and sluggish. Our ritual is to sprawl out on the rugs on the floor and listen to records: Sun Ra, The Staples Singers, Donny Hathaway, Wendy Rene, Nina Simone, Asha Bhosle, Roberta Flack, Archie Shepp, P-Funk, and so on. Sometimes we read, sometimes we ‘chat’. But we always listen and, once the fog of sleep has lifted a little, we dance.
In “Notes on Funk,” Adrian Piper writes that her immediate aim in Funk Lessons was to “enable everyone present to GET DOWN AND PARTY. TOGETHER.” Piper knows something about the infectiousness of a Bootsy Collins bass line – that it moves, paradoxically, along a trajectory both direct and circuitous. Piper knows that the sonic has the capacity to enact a life of its own beyond the scene of its creation; she knows about the vibration of vibration and the way it echoes into consciousness. She knows the club to be a space of possibility where bodies mingle in carresive militancy, simultaneously performing deconstructive and reconstructive movements.
Piper is also acutely aware of the ways that the sonic is haunted by visuality; or, to articulate this by way of W.E.B Du Bois and Jennifer Stoever, she is attuned to the way the colour line is reproduced as a sonic colour line. Funk Lessons sets out to stage a confrontation with what Piper describes as “deeply internalised racist stereotypes by which we are all victimized in one way or another.” Her work is an invitation to get down, but in order to get down we must also examine the conditions of our own subjectivity. Perhaps to dance is one way to do this. Piper asks us to let Bootsy and Betty and all the others of the black radical tradition fuck us up with their polyrhythmic performances of dissidence and difference, improvisation and collectivity. The simple invitation to listen by dancing is a gesture that reverberates back through the history of critical philosophy and aesthetics. Listening by dancing is a refusal of rationalism, a refusal to occupy the position of a distant and self-possessed subject that beholds an object from afar and with conviction. Instead, Piper’s poetics of mess and fuzz give us a different experience of what it is to behold and be held. “Beholding,” Fred Moten tells us in his book In the Break, “is always the entrance into a scene, into the context of the other, of the object.”
Like Piper, I am interested in the generative degeneracy of mess and noise. When my daughter and I perform our morning ritual of dancing our way into the day, I would like to think we are practising the form of beholding that Piper posits. We are entering a scene and trying to sense its polyrhythmic vibrations, trying to attune ourselves to its multiplicity and difference.
As is almost always the case, theory lags behind the senses, which surges ahead indifferent to our capacity to comprehend it. And so it is that many months after our ritual first began, I am still trying to make sense of what it means to behold and be held. I am thinking about what it is to reach out and touch something and how this act of touching is always also an experience of being touched. And the more I think about all of this, the more suspicious I become about a common understanding of touch and the politics this implies. The idea of ‘being touched’ has become a central paradigm for contemporary political narratives. The logic goes something like this: in order for the ‘average’ person to understand difference they must first be touched by this difference and feel it as their own. Touch is here co-opted by empathy which, in turn, is predicated on self-identification. Put another way, in order to empathise we must recognise ourselves in the position of the other in order to try to better understand the other. But still this does not quite get to the heart of why empathy is so slippery and problematic. In order to perform the act of self-identification we must first project ourselves onto the other, an act that has the unintended consequence of erasing the other and installing ourselves in their place. In Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya Hartman tells us that the structure of empathy is not merely ambivalent, it is repressive. She writes: if “violence can become palpable and indignation can be fully aroused only through the masochistic fantasy, then it becomes clear that empathy is double-edged, for in making the other’s suffering one’s own, this suffering is occluded by the other’s obliteration.” The type of touch implied in the empathic relation then, is a possessive one that flattens difference by equating touching with identifying and identifying with knowing.
Listening by dancing moves us toward a different order of touch. Partly this is because the music that we move to, and that moves us, cannot be possessed; we cannot know it simply by the fact of being touched by it. Listening by dancing is the entrance into a scene defined by movements of excess and escape, a scene that ushers us toward an experience of touch that foregrounds the unknown and the unknowable. The daily act of listening and dancing is perhaps one small way of reorienting our desires toward a mode of touching and feeling that bring us into collective social forms, ones that emerge from, and preserve, the incommensurable differences between us. This type of touch is about connection rather than possession, it is about holding and, crucially, it is also about letting go. Piper’s syllabus cultivates what another great thinker of difference and relation, Édouard Glissant, calls “the right to opacity.” A politics that foregrounds the right to opacity moves us toward a conception of knowledge that does not require the appropriation and obliteration of the other. This simple call to preserve the obscure and unknowable offers us a blueprint for how we might approach the concept of solidarity. For Glissant, shared struggle can only be shared when it takes opacity to be one of its preconditions. “To feel in solidarity with him (sic),” writes Glissant in Poetics of Relation, “or to build with him or to like what he does, it is not necessary for me to grasp him. It is not necessary to become the other (to become other) nor to ‘make’ him in my image.”
So we continue our morning ritual of listening and dancing, of listening by dancing, of dancing our way into the day, in order to feel the movement of things to come.