In recent years, the notion of community has emerged as an important but also contested field of enquiry. The ‘new’ discourse of community has challenged the understanding of community as related to the nation-state, and as an ‘imagined’ cultural and political artifact (Anderson, 1993) that provides a collectivity with the sense of unity, continuity, and closure. Jacques Derrida has insisted that such circumscribed articulations of community conceal but also perpetrate foundational violence that underlies the collective myth (Derrida 1992, 2002). Philosophical investigations of this myth by Jean-Luc Nancy (Inoperative Community, 1983, 1986; ‘The Confronted Community’, 2001, 2003), Maurice Blanchot (The Unavowable Community 1983, 1988) and Giorgio Agamben (The Coming Community, 1993), among others, have opened up the concept of community onto a broader politico-ethical and cultural – but perhaps also ontologically more fundamental – context. Here, Nancy’s call for the disbanding of the immanent community has been especially influential: according to him, community as the dominant Western political formation, founded upon a totalizing, exclusionary myth of national, racial or religious unity, must be tirelessly ‘unworked’ in order to accommodate more inclusive and fluid forms of Being-in-common, of dwelling together in the world (2000).
The contributors to this issue navigate multiple tangents of community as a socio-historical, politico-ethical, and cultural construct. They describe alternative formations and collectivities that have emerged in place of traditional community and that have been bound together by a different nexus of belonging. The authors comment on the nascent virtual or networked communities as the forum for cultural avant-garde and politically progressive forces but also as, potentially, the mainstay of political conservatism. They ask about the function of community in rapidly shifting geo-political contexts, of which the European community is a fecund if also volatile contemporary example, as is the plethora of post-colonial, post-Western articulations. Do these new configurations lean on a vision that is ethical, perhaps cosmopolitan and democratic (in the Derridean sense of ‘democracy to come’, 2003) while at the same diasporic and dispersed? Do they facilitate sharing and unimpeded border-crossing, or do they perhaps harbor another homogenizing fantasy that, in the end, will benefit the empire (Hardt and Negri, 2000)?
The issue opens with Kuisma Korhonen’s poetically crafted meditation on ‘textual communities’, in which the author invites us to participate in the adventure of reading Nancy, Blanchot, Bataille and Derrida together. This gesture of textual welcome, which is at the same time an open-ended exciting, self-transforming, and radically indeterminate ‘communal’ creation, is followed by Ignaas Devisch’s theoretical reflection. Entitled ‘The Sense of Being(-)with Jean-Luc Nancy’, Devisch’s piece engages with the French philosopher’s ontological conception of community developed in two of his recent books (La pensée dérobée, 2001, and La création du monde ou la mondialisation, 2002), the ‘sense’ of which lies precisely in the absence of any transcendent meaning or common substance, any shared value or location. This fundamentally plural mode of co-existence is always already a political praxis, the thinking of which calls for the ‘unworking’ of the traditional metaphysical horizon. The next essay, Marie-Eve Morin’s ‘Putting Community under Erasure: Derrida and Nancy on the Plurality of Singularities’, stages an encounter between Nancy’s and Derrida’s respective gestures of deconstructing the immanent community. Outlining the differences in their projects yet drawing a parallel between Derrida’s questioning of the concept of fraternity and Nancy’s articulation of ‘myth interrupted’, Morin insists on the ethico-political dimension of these respective gestures of placing community under erasure and ‘making room’ for irreducible singularities
The next section ushers in a series of encounters between theoretical reflection on community and a variety of political, literary, and artistic contexts. In ‘Community and the Work of Death’, Dorota Glowacka returns to the thought of Hannah Arendt in order to better articulate what she refers to as a ‘thanato-ontological’ dimension in Nancy’s thought. Considering that, according to Nancy, the truth of immanent community is ‘the truth of death’ — which is also the truth of exclusion, even murder, of the community’s other – she argues for a need to expand Nancy’s conception of community as ‘being-together’ so as to include a fundamental, ontological possibility of ‘dying with’. Anchoring her analysis in examples from Polish literature, Glowacka’s analysis of the nefarious logic of expropriation focuses on the conflicted Polish-Jewish community in the post-Holocaust Poland. Literature is also the focus of Timothy J. Deines’ ‘Bartleby the Scrivener, Immanence and the Resistance of Community’. As Deines points out, Herman Melville’s seminal short story has been evoked by a number of recent theorists of community, including Deleuze, Agamben, Blanchot, Derrida, and Hardt and Negri. Engaging these theoretical ‘uses’ of ‘Barthelme’ with more traditional Americanist scholarship, in the context of debates about liberal ideologies of democracy, Deines asks important questions about the political consequences of interpretive strategies on the one hand, and the implications of the philosophical deconstruction of community for literary studies on the other.
The recent demand in political theory to rethink the concept of democracy — in the face of democracy’s ‘crisis’ – is at the center of Angela Mitropoulos and Brett Neilson’s deft analysis in ‘Cutting Democracy’s Knot’. Weaving (or perhaps ‘knotting’) together Nancy’s affirmation of democracy as the conquest of ‘eco-technics’ and Mario Tronti’s critique of democracy as principally domination and the mark of economics’ triumph, the authors insist on the need to think democracy as the very oscillation between these two poles, within which the questions of responsibility and political decision-making, and well as the very boundaries of the political, must continue to be negotiated. Intertwined with the debates about democracy is the contestation of the notion of ‘citizenship’, which has been taken up by Paulina Tambakaki in her essay ‘Global Community, Global Citizenship?’ Starting with a traditional view that democratic practice rests on the idea of bounded community, Tambakaki problematizes this assertion of boundaries through a critique of David Held’s argument for a cosmopolitan citizenship as adequate to the forces of globalization. The author reveals that such concept of global citizenship presupposes the universal principle of human rights that approximates a Habermasian model of deliberative or procedural democracy based on the principle of consensus. Following the lead of Chantal Mouffe, Tambakaki argues that such presupposition of consensus is, in fact, anti-political in its evasion of what Mouffe calls democratic agonism, and she supports Mouffe’s call for a pluralistic (and agonistic) model of the public sphere.
The strife between globalizing forces and the ‘boundedness’ of traditional community is illustrated in the essay that leads into the next cluster of texts, which is dedicated to the exploration of the intersections between community and contemporary art practice. In ‘En Cada Barrio’: Timocracy, Panopticism and the Landscape of a Normalized Community’, Daniel H. Ortega takes the reader on a tour of Fidel Castro’s Cuba in order to show how the sense of communal identity has been forged through an assemblage of prominently displayed public signs. This pervasive system of signage serves to promote what the author refers to as a ‘timocratic’ narrative of community that places honor and glory, as opposed to class and privilege, as the highest form of government, and that acts as a panoptic device that organizes a self-surveilled community. The normalized cultural landscape of Castro’s Cuba is set against the diasporic landscapes traced in John Paul Ricco’s reflection on artist Frédéric Brenner’s photographic oeuvre in Disapora: Homelands in Exile. Brenner’s necessarily incomplete project of taking photographs of Jews all over the world allows Ricco to propose a tentative definition of diasporic community as a promise of a future yet-to-come rather than a project of cultural nostalgia. In his poetic investigation of the themes of exile and belonging, community and identity, diaspora and at-homeness, the author also engages with recent theoretical explorations of community, Derrida’s work on the archive and Agamben’s articulation of ‘the coming community’. A different form of artistic practice is described in Jake Kennedy’s ‘Gins, Arakawa and the Undying Community’, in which the author presents the work of artist/architect team – Madeline Gins and Shusaku Arakawa. The architects’ avant-garde project is an attempt to reveal art’s potential to transform the ways human beings experience themselves in the world. In Kennedy’s reading, this form of art constitutes a radical questioning of Blanchot’s ethical vision of ‘unavowable community’ as founded upon the death of the Other. Gins and Arakawa design ‘radical buildings’ that affirm immortality and humankind’s ‘reversible destiny’, which challenge the vision of community as ensconced in the fact of human mortality (in what the author refers to as ‘ethical thanatopsis’)
Petra Kuppers’ ‘Community Arts Practices: Improvising Being-Together’, on the other hand, seeks to define community in relation to community art and participatory art making. At the center of her essay are two art projects: Earth Stories and Sleeping Giants, digital videos that emerged from the author’s work with a group of mental health system survivors in Wales, UK. Drawing on Nancy’s articulation of inoperative community as the space ‘of the I’s who are always others (or else are nothing)’ (Nancy, 1991: 15), Kuppers accounts for the way aesthetic practice, in the form of ritual performance and poetry writing, can be used to create community coherence among the group of people whom traditional accounts of community render invisible. Art making is a form of consciously inscribing difference into sedimented patterns of cultural law and into physical spaces and narratives that have marginalized this difference. Community activism is also the focus of the final essay in this issue, Natalie Cherot’s ‘Transnational Adoptees: Global Political Orphans or an Activist Community?’ Cherot examines the aftermath of a dramatic migration of adoptees that occurred at the end of the Vietnam War, when almost three thousand Vietnamese children were flown out of Vietnam and placed in American homes across the country (Operation Babylift). The author critiques this Foucauldian biopolitical and racialized project of creating global flows of children from the developing world and assimilating them into the Western institution of white nuclear family. Against such hegemonic practices, Vietnamese adoptees seek to exercise their own communal agency by creating physical and virtual spaces in which to tell their life stories and forge their own hybrid identities and a sense of collectivity.
Although writing in English and necessarily ‘mondialised’ (to again paraphrase Derrida) through the medium of the e-journal, the contributors to this issue of Culture Machine come from various parts of the world and share a lot of different languages. This mélange of texts aspires to be a meeting place for a community of minds, indeed, a site of community in its most basic sense of communication and circulation of meaning. We invite you to join this paradoxical community without community (‘nous tous désormais’!) (Nancy, 2001: 40), the community that dwells within the imagined polis of the text yet seeks to continually disrupt the communal boundary and to confound the very logic of the border
I would like to extend a big thank-you to Joanna Zylinska and Gary Hall, general editors of Culture Machine, for the invitation to guest-edit this issue, but also for their guidance, encouragement and infinite patience. My gratitude goes to all the contributors for trusting me with their texts: working with you has been a privilege. Special thanks to my student assistant Mordecai Walfish for his share of help (and for keeping me sane in the process).
Agamben, G. (1983) The Coming Community. Trans. M. Hardt. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Blanchot, M. (1983) La Communauté inavouable. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit.
Blanchot, M. (1988) The Unavowable Community. Trans. P. Joris. New York: Station Hill Press.
Derrida, J. (1992) ‘Force of Law: The “Mystical Foundation of Authority”‘, in D. Cornell (ed.), Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice. London and New York: Routledge
Derrida, J. (2002) ‘On Cosmopolitanism’, in Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. London and New York: Routledge.
Derrida, J. (2003) ‘Autoimmunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides’, in G. Borradori, Philosophy in a Time of Terror. Chicago: Chicago University Press
Hardt M. & Negri, A. (2000) Empire. Cambridge, MA & London: Harvard University Press.
Nancy, J.-L. (1991) The Inoperative Community. Trans. P. Connor et al. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
Nancy, J.-L. (2000) Being Singular Plural. Trans. R. D. Richardson and A. E. Byrne. Stanford: Stanford University Press
Nancy, J.-L. (2001) La Communauté affrontée. Paris: Éditions Galilée
Nancy, J.-L. (2003) ‘The confronted community’. Trans. A. Macdonald. Postcolonial Studies 6 (No.1): 23-36.