On the eve of the election

Oct 27, 2020

Just one week before the election, democracy, public health, and the promise of justice hang in the balance. So too does confidence in government, institutions, and authority in all forms. As we sense an erosion of trust and faith in others, we are all compelled to find community and trust in new places, and ultimately in one another.

For this magazine post, Aaron Levy, Ella Comberg, and Eduardo Cadava reflect on the relationship between listening and democracy itself.

Aaron Levy, PhD, MPhil was the Executive Director and Chief Curator of Slought (2002-2022), a...

Cadava is Professor of English at Princeton University, where he also is affiliated with the...

"Listening... is a crucial political activity that enables us to give democratic shape to our being together in the world." — Susan Bickford, The Dissension of Democracy.

"Total strangers, who will never say a single word to each other, can share an intimacy — an intimacy contained in the exchange of a glance, a nod of the head, a smile, a shrug of a shoulder.... An agreement about life. An agreement without clauses..."
— John Berger, Some Notes on Song


For the past year, one of our primary efforts at Slought and the Health Ecologies Lab has been producing the Penn Medicine Listening Lab, an initiative grounded in the simple act of listening and sharing. The project recognizes how empowering and therapeutic it can be to feel heard. We feel immense gratitude to the storytellers who have shared their lives and their vulnerabilities with us and the Penn Medicine community.

In one story, a physician shares with us his experiences quarantining away from his family after discovering that he had been exposed to COVID-19, just days before his wife was due to deliver their second child. In another story, a surgeon has recently returned home after 56 days in the ICU with a severe case of COVID-19, yet is now left with disabilities that may prevent him from being able to care for patients again. A nurse has been caring for her first patient with COVID-19 for weeks. As they confront their mutual fears, an unlikely friendship forms even though her PPE prevents him from ever seeing her face. A medical assistant caring for COVID-19 and other patients tries to be present at work while simultaneously supporting and grieving for infected family members from afar. A patient is trying to stay positive and hopeful as she unexpectedly receives a terminal diagnosis. A nurse working in oncology for 38 years is now approaching retirement, and reflects with us on the many relationships she has developed with patients over the years, and how they have taught her, even when they were dying, how to live.

These stories, and the many others shared this past year with the Listening Lab, are part of a growing archive of life before and during the time of the virus; they are also the public manifestation of relationships between those of us at Slought and an expansive community of patients, caregivers, and workers on the frontlines of healthcare today. We entrust these stories to you with the hope of conveying a more intimate understanding of the pandemic but also so that they might inspire practices of care in your own relationships.

Even if it has not sickened all of us, the pandemic has affected each of us, our families, and communities in innumerable ways. In July, we asked the Slought community to respond to a short survey in hopes of better understanding how our publics are coping. Many people underscored the immense anxiety, not just of illness and caregiving as articulated in the Listening Lab, but also of everyday experiences of isolation, confinement, and precarity in all forms. This sense of private struggle was made public and collective in August when we presented Atlas of Affects, an open call for affective traces of the pandemic, and quickly received submissions from all over the world. These artistic works, writings, and other media artifacts, now installed in our storefront gallery, powerfully demonstrate the solace that can come from sharing and representing the times in which one lives. The collection includes the stories of a woman in state-mandated quarantine in Australia, photographing her limited surroundings; the music festival attendee who receives a desperate Facebook message from a bassist she barely knows; the Angelino walking through a city transformed by the pandemic.

Over the past several months, many of us at Slought have struggled to manage childcare responsibilities and remote learning; live with immunocompromised family members; support loved ones working on the front-lines of healthcare; and mourn the passing of those close to us. With our social networks and sense of community interrupted, working in these times often feels overwhelming, yet we continue to do so because working with others sustains us. We feel an immense privilege to be able to spend our days on projects like the Listening Lab and Atlas of Affects that help us work through everything that we are living and experiencing. We hope that this work lessens the burdens of the pandemic for you, or at the very least provides an opening for critical thinking or simply reflecting.

Just one week before the election, democracy, public health, and the promise of justice hang in the balance. So too does confidence in government, institutions, and authority in all forms. As we sense an erosion of trust and faith in others, we are all compelled to find community and trust in new places, and ultimately in one another. If we have begun with stories of personal struggle, it is because they are sites of commonality that can perhaps enable us to imagine a new kind of public trust, one that begins in our inescapable and always wondrously surprising relation to others. These stories remind us of what it might mean to remake politics around listening to and caring for our most vulnerable, and the importance of listening to communities organizing themselves, rising voices of dissent, and the legacies and afterlives of historical struggles — even as the promise of doing so seems to always slip away.

In this moment of different and pressing forms of precarity, it seems important to recall the responsibilities we all have to further the democratic experiment, precisely in the very moments and places where it seems most broken, most threatened, and most undemocratic. We can perhaps best take on these responsibilities when, acting in the name of the most vulnerable, fighting for those most in need, we exercise what, in 1847, Frederick Douglass called our "right to criticize American institutions," especially when they seem to fail us. It is perhaps precisely in moments such as the ones we are now experiencing that we can gather our strength to reaffirm our commitment to the wildly beautiful communities that not only make us who we are but also confirm that we never exist alone. This fact can offer us a public power on which we can draw, now and in the future, and this because it is perhaps the several impossibilities we face that give us the right to move forward together and, among so many other urgencies, to make sure we demonstrate our will by exercising our collective right to vote.