A Strain of Conversation

by Paige Sarlin


I have sat in many places watching and listening as a form takes shape between people, across space, through language—we call these forms conversations, discussions, and debates. They take place in classrooms and living rooms, in galleries and church basements, in lofts and parks. Over the last eight years, I have had the privilege to participate in one strain of conversation centered around a particular space, 16 Beaver Street in Lower Manhattan. Our on-going discussions related to art and politics here have truly been a practice; one that has entailed learning from mistakes, experience, and degrees of interest and engagement. What started with an appointed place and time for a weekly “reading group” has grown and changed to serve as a base for emails, presentations, projects, collaborations, presentations, and friendships.  It has yielded campaigns, events, and exhibitions, emails, walks and dinners.  With hindsight, it seems to me that things changed more than they stayed the same. At the root of it all has been talk, a commitment to thinking through conversation and exchange.

These discussions have not always been easy or comfortable; I often felt frustration and in those moments I found myself thinking about the form of the conversation in general. After reading Jo Freeman’s critical essay on social systems and communication in social justice activist organizing The Tyranny of Structurelessness (link to article), it was easy for me to identify the way in which certain people or certain ways of talking dominated at certain times as a result of the absence of formal facilitation. This looseness derived from the apparent consensus that we were all sufficiently sensitive and committed to open and democratic processes that we could do without any structure. At 16 Beaver, ultimately it was a matter of personal responsibility to assert one-self, to speak up and get the conversation going in the direction one wanted. The absence of structure required a conversational ethic, a hyper-vigilance and awareness on both the level of the personal and with respect to the discussion as a whole. It built within me a kind of double consciousness with respect towards both the form and content of our talks and the relation between the ethics and politics of dialogue more broadly. The absence of explicit structure raised the question of social direction and formation; requiring that I negotiate between my own participation and the group as a whole, to think both specifically in terms of interventions and broader political intentions. 

It’s been said a million times before, that democracy is an endless meeting. If we have as our goal the radical transformation of society in its political and civil dimensions and cultural and economic conditions, the nature of how we interact with each other is as much an aspect of what will be radically transformed as those institutions we distantly see and wonder at our “effectiveness” in touching (or overthrowing). As such, participating in conversations at 16 Beaver brought me face to face with the questions of the intersection of the political and the social. As a group, our first intention hasn’t been to hear from as many people as possible, but to begin to work things out amongst ourselves It became clear to me that I hadn’t actually been engaged in building a “democratic” conversation so much as a pointed discussion that was geared toward something less definite but no less politically inflected.

At my first discussion at 16 Beaver, we read a passage from Marx’s The German Ideology. Our discussion focused specifically on the differences between what we do for work for money and the aesthetic, political and cultural production we considered our “real work.”  Nothing was resolved of course and I was frustrated. It was my first experience talking about Marx outside an explicitly activist context. The text was being used as a starting point for a discussion in which a different kind of politics appeared; the consensus seemed to be that we each should find our own ways to resolve the dilemma, and that there were good and bad ways to make things “work.” I was confused by this and unsettled by the absence of attention to the larger issues at work, but I was hooked by the potential of our conversation and the very interest evidenced in the topic.

While I was willing at the onset to ignore questions of structure to get to content I was eager to engage with, I recently re-read the passage we discussed about the division of labor and was reminded that, according to Marx, the division of labor is not put forward as a contradiction or dilemma that can be solved individually.  He is explicit in his conviction that only a structural change can resolve the problem of alienated labor. Interestingly, the attention over time within our group has been to focus through our meetings on these structural issues, to work at length to apprehend the nature of the system in which we live in such a way as to change it.

At 16 Beaver, the overriding sense continues to be that there are critiques to build and maps to construct, plans and ideas, confusions and clarity to be distinguished in an effort to figure about what is to be done in the face of neo-liberalism, US-American imperialism, increasing global violence and inequality. Within the framework of a communal commitment to ethical conversation, each of us has labored to articulate what the most pressing questions are for our own political and cultural production. In recalling our first conversation I am struck by the persistence of this negotiation between the personal and the structural, between the form of conversation and its content. With the clarity of time and hindsight, it has become explicitly clear to me that some of the problems inherent in our conversations have been structural. But in the process of grappling with the very forms of difficulty we have wrested social change, intellectual, political and emotional transformations through both our talking and our listening to each other.