Robert Sember on the topic of “Collectivity,” presented as part of What Now? 2014: Collaboration & Collectivity at the Vera List Center Saturday, April 5, 2014.
For the members of Ultra-red, the question of political listening attains urgency because of our specific commitments to class struggle. Both within the cultural action of Ultra-red and in our political contexts outside/alongside Ultra-red, we witness continually how the failures to determine a deliberative process of collective listening results in all manner of obstacles within the very confines of movement building, not to mention the procedures of listening required in contested encounters with state power and its class masters. And yet we know from our own experience as well as through scholarship, that movements sustain themselves or not in large part due to their capacity to develop listening protocols, either intentionally authored or adopted from existing social and political forms, such as the church, the family, the classroom, or friendship. Oftentimes organizers, activists, and base communities resist intentional protocols of listening on the grounds that such procedures trigger a feeling of in-authenticity or unnaturalness. And yet in that resistance we can hear the conflict between competing protocols and even the friction between underlying ethical systems. As the sociologist Francesca Polletta has pointed out, movements organized upon the armature of friendship can find intentional processes inauthentic precisely because those processes demand a reorganization of relations and even a shift in ethical foundation from one based on affinity to one that becomes available to the stranger or outsider. Throughout these often painful episodes of transition and re-examination, the existing protocols of listening come under scrutiny and risk themselves seeming strange and unnatural. Thus, it could be said that listening as a political practice is always an encounter with the stranger in our midst. At this point, I can signal a third dimension of collectivity that may be of interest here, which is the question of leadership. The move to collective listening can be an opportunity to diminish or dilute the tendency for a collective to be organized around a single personality or particular authority. Related to this issue is the difference in the roles individuals can play within collectives. A particularly important distinction to be made is between the individual as organizer and the individual or collective as protagonist of struggle.
In Ultra-red’s consideration of leadership, we often turn to the legacy of Ella Baker, a woefully underappreciated civil rights organizer. Ella Baker helped form economic cooperatives in Harlem in the early 20th century, and greatly increased the national membership of the NAACP while actively critiquing the organization’s hierarchical and male-dominated structure. She is probably best remembered for her work with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Under Miss Baker’s guidance SNCC members practiced a form of organizing grounded in procedures of listening that involved disciplined attentiveness and active questioning. Working closely with poor, rural communities in segregated Southern states, SNCC activists saw their role as using an active practice of listening to assist the constituency find its own power and solutions to problems. Even when the work of SNCC became consolidated around voter-registration campaigns, those campaigns always assumed the primary aim of developing and reproducing leadership within and among the community itself. SNCC activists were not the protagonists of the movement. They were its organizers. In testimony after testimony, when asked about the role of Ella Baker in the movement, SNCC alumni talk of how she taught people how to listen. That pedagogy of listening was the basis of a political literacy that then equipped SNCC field organizers to work with people and help them realize their own power to endure the brutal retaliation of white supremacist state and mass violence and eventually transform a racially defined class structure.*
Robert Sember is a member of the international sound-art collective, Ultra-red (for more information click here). For twenty years, Ultra-red has investigated the contribution experimental sound art can make to political organizing. Robert brings to his work with Ultra-red training in cultural studies and medical anthropology. His ethnographic research in the U.S. and South Africa has focused on governmental and non-governmental service sectors with an emphasis on HIV/AIDS prevention, testing and treatment concerns. He currently teaches at The New School’s Eugene Lang College. He was a 2009-2010 Vera List Center for Art and Politics Fellow.
*This is only an excerpt. The full presentation will be made available shortly here.