Sounds and Politics of Homelessness


The relation between the collective experience of the balcony drone and the radical indeterminacy of the Outside involved not only a live and effective listening but also an existential exploration. Indeed, the balcony drone brought certain strangeness to the experience of the confinement, drawing attention to that which vibrates beneath the habitual forms, inviting the surrounding bodies to a relationship with the ineffable intensity that escapes representation, that cannot be enclosed. As a practice of connection with the Outside, the balcony drone was far away from the security and closeness of the home. It populated the empty streets with unfamiliar continuous tones, inviting some of the persistence of the Outside into a controlled and regulated environment.


Opposed to the gathering at home as a site of security and belonging, a community attuned to the Outside sounds more like the “being together in homelessness” of Stefano Harney and Fred Moten (2014: 96-97), which is neither an idealization nor a metaphorization of houselessness,[27] but rather an “undercommon appositionality,” a being “among his[/her] own in dispossession.”[28] A sharing, a way of listening together, an openness to a common intensity beyond appropriation, formal assignations and statuses, beyond the identities and attributes on which the categorizations that underlie various forms of oppression are based. Indeed, the very process of constituting a home involves the appropriation of a territory, whether material, affective, or symbolic. And it is precisely this act of appropriation (including, as noted above, the logics of delimitation/distinction it involves) that is the standpoint of operations and discourses of segregation, whose precise aim is – even more than determining who is welcomed – to keep the homeless at bay (Manning 2003: 31-32). 


Some music practices are interwoven with this togetherness without home: from the urge for expression within hostile environments to the instable mobility of touring, from the research into the possibilities of dissonance to collective wanderings in improvisation, the examples are numerous. And it is no coincidence that Harney and Moten mention two musicians (Woody Guthrie and John Coltrane) as examples of “cosmic hobo[s] […] embracing homelessness for the possibilities that it bears” (Harney and Moten 2014: 140). In emitting weird sounds on balconies, in re-joining the Outside in a context in which the home was reigning, the Montreal Balcony Drone is connected in many ways to these practices of embracing homelessness.[29]


But yet, something was, at a certain point, missing. In this difficult balance between consistency and distance, the affective community brought together through the balcony drone sometimes felt too dissipated, as if the potential vibrations were dissolving within the expansive space, within the contingency of the actual world. For the virtual dimension of experience to be felt as an intensification of the event (or, at least, to emerge from pure indeterminacy), it must cross a certain threshold of rhythmic density, allowing the process of collective individuation to produce a vortical body, tensed by its potential. 


Maybe what was lacking was some hapticality, that is 


the touch of the undercommons, [where] another kind of feeling became common. […] [The] capacity to feel though others, for others to feel through you, for you to feel them feeling you […] A feel, a sentiment with its own interiority, there on skin, soul no longer inside but there for all to hear, for all to move […], felt through others, through other things.(Harney and Moten 2014: 40, 98-99)


A feeling - tact - of the element, the event of the common: to be in touch, to feel the vibrations moving the different bodies. Not saturated with the nostalgia of the comfort, proximity, and security of the home, but a feeling in/of dispossession, of fugitivity. Harney and Moten assert that 


this feel of the shipped is not regulated, at least not successfully, by a state, a religion, a people, an empire, a piece of land, a totem. Though forced to touch and be touched, to sense and be sensed in that space of no space, though refused sentiment, history and home, we feel (for) each other. This form of feeling [is] not given to [collective] decision, not adhering or reattaching to settlement, nation, state, territory or historical story; nor was it repossessed by the group, which could not now feel as one, reunified in time and space. (Harney and Moten 2014: 40, 97-98)


This is perhaps one of the most important teachings of the writers of the black radical tradition: through the violent affectability of slavery and its ongoing (effective) echoes, through the organized denigration of the dignities accorded to the modern subject, through dispossession, a shared feeling emerged from the forced migration, a feeling of the shipped, of fugitivity. But this fugitivity does not lead to the quest for a new home but to a radical rejection of settling (Halberstam in Harney and Moten 2014: 11). 


Settling, like the appropriation of the territory associated to the homely, is not only the foundation of the nation-state but also of various racist and white supremacist ideologies. It is because this is “their” place – a place they conquered, appropriated, settled – that the different other is perceived as an invader, a profiteer, or, as in the case of Native or Black peoples, as descendents of a past that must remain subjugated. This discourse – as outrageous as it might sound for many people – is in fact the underpinning of many recent public interventions. As Erin Manning shows, it is important to trace the logic of this discourse to the desire for the bounded home: 


Within the vocabulary of the nation, the figure of the stranger is often contrasted with the bounded (white) self, bounded, as it were, within the nation-state as “home” and within the self’s own cohesive imaginary. […] The porousness of boundaries must be addressed, be they the borders of our selves or the political boundaries that dictate our sense of belonging within the home and/as the nation. Through a renegotiation of the naturalized aspects of our cultural and political identities, we become aware that we have been taught that to understand who we are, we must be capable of appropriating a past as our own. (Manning 2003: 62, 72)


A past, a place, a home in this world, even our owned selves. 


But what if, instead of this learned habit of appropriating everything we touch, we were open to difference without trying to seize it or make it our own? Here is another attunement to the Outside, since the unknown is the Outside as a condition of the possibility of difference (Bartoli and Gosselin 2017, my translation). Perhaps then we can also learn to listen to that obscure part within us that troubles the ego and conscious volition, the Outside that resides “in” us: “We are alike because each one of us is exposed to the [O]utside that we are for ourselves” (Nancy 1991: 33). What if – in these times marked by fear of external threat, of locked homes and existential isolation – we listened in this way to this strangeness?


Such a micropolitical stance also has important macropolitical implications:


The discourse of security that undergirds the home and/as the nation is born of ‘a primal fear, a natural estrangement’ (Der Derian 1993: 97) […]. The desire for security is manifested as a collective fear and a resentment of difference – fear of that which is not us, not certain, not predictable. The quest for protection against the unknown results in a tightening of the borders of the nation, the home, and the self. (Manning 2003: 33-34)


If, following Umut Ozguc (2020), borders are relational processes that determine the movement of bodies, affective experiences that define our relations with the world,[30] then such a polymorphous tightening of the borders seems to be one of the distinctive features of the present epoch. The recent identity tension/reaction, the multi-layered successes of the security and surveillance industries, and the griddy management of the ecosystems are just a few other features of contemporary society stemming from fear of the strange(r), of the unknown other, of the Outside. And the home has become the privileged site of this hostility.


Maybe it seems like a lot to ascribe to the little home. But the home is a bit like the police or the army: it is not because it sometimes performs useful functions that it is relevant in and of itself, as an entity to which we give meaning, resources, and support. The need for shelter – from cold or rain, to rest and warm the body – is of course something that many living beings need to survive in this world. Unlike the concept of home, the notion of shelter suggests no human mastery, no entitled appropriation, but, rather, a territorialized use: it is a point of passage or, at least, a momentary stop on a journey that others can use at another time if needed. Perhaps the concept of shelter opens a way out of the homey while acknowledging a deep animal need for inhabiting. But this opening must imply a different politics, not in search of the ideal form of life in common (the polis) but as a problematization of the collective,[31] of the relation to the other, the stranger, a politics of hospitality capable of welcoming the Outside, the unknown traversing the human: The Outside is what the human cannot answer for. And it is because he cannot answer for it that he is open, through it, to new becomings (Bartoli and Gosselin 2017).[32] 


This conception of politics seemed to be underlying in the call for the Montreal Balcony Drone to gather “in our shelters” to emit such a “deep and anonymous murmur” (Deleuze 2004: 17). The choice of this notion (shelter) shows once again that the balcony drone was never a celebration of the possibility to produce sound at home but rather an attempt to point to these “modalities that exist separate from the logical, logistical, the housed and the positioned” (Halberstam in Harney and Moten 2014: 11). Such a fugitive[33] practice could be seen as a collective proposition to reduce the whiteness[34] in each of us, that which tenses up in the face of the unknown, that seeks to appropriate and settle, that rejects the stranger and represses the homeless. In this sense, the balcony drone appears to be an experimental political practice designed to outline a politics of hospitality understood as the ability to welcome the Outside, the potentialities of difference living in the unknown. 


But this modest proposition does not suggest that a creative practice – no matter its quality– can transmit[35] the Outside. The Outside resists any representational capture; it remains always, in itself, “at once indelible and inaccessible” (Jensen 2013: 322-323). Indeed, much of Blanchot’s work could be considered a written treatise on the radical incapacity of language to capture the Outside, as it is only possible to share an experience of it. Is music, because of its close connection to the ineffable, a better way to give “voice” to this ever-distant Outside? Following the Montreal Balcony Drone, the question remains open for further experimentations. 


The Montreal Balcony Drone represents an original initiative designed to create music from multiple distant shelters without re-enchanting the home as a site of security and stability, within a context in which being homed was emerging as the dominant relation mode of operating in the world.[36] It undermines the centrality of the home by opening to the Outside through operations of affective resonance. If the home tends to domesticate life, it is also because it is the privileged site of distinction between inside and outside, subsuming, through the logic of enclosure, the latter to a mere exteriority (Manning 2003: 50). In contrast, the Outside appears as a spectral line that traverses and constitutes the possibility of the self and the other in the same movement, blurring the distinction on which the exclusive logics of the home stand. Bartoli and Gosselin remind us that even at the heart of the home, there is always concern about the unknown, of the Outside, and it is because the oikos is troubled by this spectral latency that the strange(r) can happen. Other inspiring practices of sound creation could amplify das Unheimliche,[37] the strangeness that inhabits the familiar, the uncanny that “resides” in the homely. In this time, when so many forces are pushing to solidify the shaken home, it will take a multiplicity of diverse forces to open breaches in the walls that confine our lives.