“Our understanding… is an understanding that we share understanding between us and, at the same time, because we share understanding between us…” Jean-Luc Nancy, “Of Being Singular Plural”
One summer, in the course of his doctoral work, Ethan Philbrick and some of his friends formed a study group on the writings of Karl Marx. That may sound like the kind of pedantic exercise that graduate students sometimes devise in order to avoid the writing of their dissertations – except this wasn’t exactly a “study group” in the conventional sense of the term. It was perhaps closer to what Fred Moten had in mind when he said: study is what you do with other people. It’s talking and walking around with other people, working, dancing, suffering, some irreducible convergence of all three… The notion of a rehearsal – being in a kind of workshop, playing in a band, in a jam session… The point of calling it ‘study’ is to mark that the incessant and irreversible intellectuality of these activities was already there.
Ethan’s study group was, in effect, a jam session, an experiment in a collective process of reading Marx out loud together, sometimes in sync, sometimes out of sync, varying tempo, volume, intensity – and using the musicality of that collective reading to get at something in the texts.
That may sound like a skewed approach, but one might also see it as one deeply informed by Marx’s own early writings, which propounded the necessity of engaging not only thought, but also sensuality: “a musical ear, an eye for the beauty of form, in short, senses capable of human gratification…” For Marx himself, particularly in his early works, the sensuousness of expression was as significant as its “content.” Working toward an aesthetic apprehension of Marx’s texts in a collective, choral context has allowed Ethan and his collaborators to discover, in those texts, something that, in his words, “sounds less like a rally cry and more like a sensuous and weird moan.” That doesn’t mean the sound of Choral Marx isn’t political – but its politics is as much inflected by polyphony and layered rhythms as its aesthetic is inflected by queer, feminist and anti-racist extensions and critiques of Marxist theory.
It’s also an ongoing study in how to labor, and learn, together. The project embraces the utopian possibilities of exploratory, sensual, and sometimes disharmonious choralism. Ethan told me, “I’ve started wanting to think of it as the love child of Toshi Reagon, Ann Imhof, Morgan Bassichis and Gregor Ligeti.” Which sounds, to me, like a study group we could all learn with …
Barbara Browning teaches in the Department of Performance Studies at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She writes cultural criticism, fiction, and things in between.